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Sun-ripened peaches, nectarines, apricots, pluots, plums — all members of the stone fruit family — offer a taste of summer with each juicy bite.

Because it's been a tough year for local growers, you may not find stone fruit in our farmers markets. But those coming in from Colorado are now at their peak. When you get them home, if they're still a bit hard, place them into a brown paper bag to hold at room temperature for a few days until they're tender and ready to enjoy. Once ripened, they will keep longer in the refrigerator but they taste best at room temperature, so remove them from the cold to warm up before you take a bite.

The many different peach varieties are categorized as either Freestone or Clingstone, terms related to whether or not the fruit "clings" to the pit. To prepare Freestone peaches, the ones in season right now, simply slice the peach down the middle and pull it right off the "stone."

All varieties of stone fruit are delicious eaten just as they are, juices dribbling down your chin. They're also great chopped and tossed into salads or spooned over yogurt, ice cream and pound cake. And they become even sweeter and more succulent when cooked. Heat helps tease out the juices and amplifies the fruit's sweetness. What works for one stone fruit works for all when sautéed, poached, roasted or grilled. (Grilling adds a little char that helps to deepen and enrich the flavors.) They're all great served alongside chicken or pork.

The length of cooking time will vary depending on the fruit's quality, size and ripeness. While some cooks insist on peeling the fuzzy skin from peaches, I like the texture and additional flavor it adds to any dish. But if you insist, plunge the peaches into boiling water for about 20 seconds to loosen the skin, then place in a bowl of ice water before slipping off the peel. Be sure to pit the fruit over a bowl to catch and save all the juices. In general, stone fruits are sweet enough on their own, so there's no need to add much sugar.

Turn chopped fruit into a fresh and fiery salsa for chips, burgers or to top off nachos, burritos and grain and bean bowls. Whisk it into mayonnaise for sandwiches, especially chicken and tuna salad, and drizzle over roasted or grilled vegetables and meats. It's fabulous spooned over scrambled eggs.

You might also want to capture the summery sense of stone fruit by preserving, freezing or drying. To freeze, simply pit then slice and lay the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the freezer until the slices are hard. Transfer the frozen slices into freezer bags and they'll be ready to enjoy in the dead of winter.

Even better, try drying slices of fruit first. It's a slow method that requires patience, but it preserves the fruit as the juices evaporate and the floral, sugary essences condense, intensifying its flavor.

Drying stone fruit is simple. Slice the fruit and lay on a grate (i.e. a cooling rack for cookies and cakes), set over a baking sheet and bake in a 200-degree oven, turning the fruit about every hour, for about 3 hours, or until it's reached the desired texture. The fruit will be soft and slightly leathery, and is great eaten as a snack, added to granola or served over ice cream or yogurt. Store the dried fruit in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze for about six months. Freezing and drying aren't the place for overripe or bruised fruit — those are better baked into a cobbler or simmered into jam.

Because the long, cool growing season has also been tough on our tomatoes, I've found that stone fruit makes a nice alternative to them in salads and on top of bruschetta. Just enrich sliced fruit with peppery olive oil, pair with milky cheeses, basil and crunchy salt. It's best to slice and macerate the fruit first, then whisk the juices into the vinaigrette for an extra punch. Here, too, you want the best fruit available.

Peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots — like these long, sunny days — are here now, so don't wait. Grab summer and its sweetness whenever and however you can.

Roasting fruit brings out its sweetness. Any stone fruit will do.
Roasting fruit brings out its sweetness. Any stone fruit will do.

Mette Nielsen, Special to the Star Tribune

Oven Roasted Stone Fruit with Cinnamon and Ginger

Serves 4 to 6.

Plums tend to hold their shape while baking and they bake quickly. Peaches and nectarines work equally well here, too, though the baking times may vary. Just make sure the fruit is thoroughly cooked through but not overcooked. These are fabulous served with whipped cream or a dab of lightly sweetened whole milk yogurt. Substitute lemon juice for the wine if you wish. From Beth Dooley.

• 1 1/2 lb. plums, halved and pitted

• 3 tbsp. honey

• 1/4 c. white wine or fresh lemon juice

• 1/4 c. chopped candied ginger

• 1 cinnamon stick

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the plums into a baking dish, cut side up. In a small dish, whisk together the honey and wine or lemon juice. Drizzle over the plums. Distribute the chopped ginger into the plums. Put the cinnamon stick into the dish. Cover the baking dish snugly with foil and bake until the plums become tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and baste with the pan juices and return to the oven until the plums are thoroughly cooked through, but not mushy, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Hot and Sweet Stone Fruit Salsa

Makes about 2 cups.

This will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Use any stone fruit — peaches, plums, nectarines, pluots — and adjust the seasonings to taste. Great with chips, on tacos, burritos and scrambled eggs, or whisked into mayonnaise for chicken salad or as a sandwich spread. From Beth Dooley.

• 2 large peaches or nectarines, pitted and cut into 1/2-in. chunks

• 1 large red bell pepper, deveined, seeded and diced

• 1/4 c. chopped sweet onion

• 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro

• 2 tbsp. chopped basil

• 1 tbsp. honey

• 1 tbsp. lime juice, or to taste

• Generous pinch coarse salt, to taste

• Generous pinch ground cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes, to taste

Directions

In a medium bowl, mix together the peaches, pepper, onions, cilantro, basil, honey, lime juice, salt and cayenne. Cover and refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight. Taste and adjust the seasonings before serving.

Stone Fruit, Mozzarella and Basil Salad

Serves 4 to 6.

Serve this as a light summer salad over dark greens or as a topping for bruschetta or crostini. Macerating the fruit in a little lemon juice and salt enhances the flavor and draws out the juices. Here's where to use the best fruit you can find. Use a mix of whatever you like or have on hand. From Beth Dooley.

• 2 lb. stone fruit, pitted and sliced about 1/2-in. thick

• 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar

• 2 tsp. honey

• Pinch coarse salt

• 8 oz. fresh mozzarella

• 1/4 c. chopped basil, plus a few whole leaves for garnish

• 1 tbsp. chopped mint

• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• Several grinds black pepper

Directions

Put the fruit into a bowl and toss with the vinegar and honey and then sprinkle with the salt. Let the fruit sit until the juices pool out a little, about 5 minutes.

Tear the mozzarella into 1/2-inch pieces and toss with the fruit. Toss in the basil and mint. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with several grinds of pepper. Serve over bruschetta or with a side of crostini or arrange over a lettuce-lined platter for a salad garnished with a few whole basil leaves.

Easier Than Pie Stone Fruit Crisp

Serves about 6.

This is great for last-minute company and comes together in a cinch. Use a mix of whatever stone fruit you have on hand. It's great on its own but even better warm from the oven with a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream. From Beth Dooley.

For the topping:

• 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

• 1/2 c. rolled oats

• 1/2 c. brown sugar

• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

• Pinch ground nutmeg

• Pinch coarse salt

• 6 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

For the filling:

• 5 to 6 nectarines, peaches and/or plums, pitted and cut into 1/2-in. pieces (about 5 c.)

• 2 tbsp. granulated sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare the topping: In a food processor, pulse together the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles small clumps.

To prepare the filling: In a large bowl, toss together the stone fruit with the sugar, then transfer to a 2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit and bake until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is golden, about 45 to 55 minutes. Serve warm.

Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.