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It's the peak of summer in Sonoma County — why not try grilling some fruit?

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It’s the peak of summer here in Sonoma County, and grilling season has been underway for quite some time. And while you may not yet have had your fill of burgers, sausages, and grilled corn on the cob, you also might be looking for some inspiration.

Grilling is to summer as succulent fruit is to summer, so why not put the two together? Grilling fruit couldn’t be easier — if you can grill a burger, you’ve certainly got the skills to grill fruit — but the results are transformational. The heat of a grill caramelizes the natural sugars in fruit and intensifies its flavor.

The best types of fruit for the grill are slightly firm and can withstand the heat. In-season fruit will always have the most flavor. It also tends to be less expensive at the market since it’s more plentiful, and easier to find locally.

In summer, choose seasonal stone fruit such as peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots, or slices of juicy watermelon. Tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango and bananas are also natural partners for the grill.

Late-summer figs are sublime. In autumn, apples and pears are a great option. You can even grill avocados (which are, technically, a fruit).

Try to pick fruits that are fragrant but only semi-ripe. Reserve those perfectly ripened juicy peaches for eating out of hand. Fruits, such as stone fruit, should have a little give, but be slightly firm. Also, you’ll have more success with freestone fruits rather than what are known as “cling” (meaning the pit pops right out rather than “clinging” to the fruit flesh).

The process is simple. If you are using stone fruit, cut it in half and remove the pit. Use thick slices of fresh (peeled) pineapple, watermelon, or mango. Apples and pears can be grilled in thick slices or halved. Bananas should be split lengthwise and the peel left intact.

Next, fire up the grill and make sure to clean the grate well, especially if you’ve cooked dinner previously (no one wants a salmon-flavored nectarine). I only use gas grills when cooking fruit, because I find charcoal imparts an off taste to the fruit.

Just before grilling, lightly brush the fruit with a little neutral-flavored oil, such as canola or coconut, or melted butter. Then just put it right on the grate, flesh side down, over medium to medium-high direct heat, and watch the juices sizzle.

You’ll want to turn the fruit — tongs work great for this — as soon as it gets some nice grill marks, and then cook it on the second side until slightly tender. You want to grill it long enough to soften the fruit, create those telltale grill marks, and bring out the juicy flavor, but not so long that the fruit starts to collapse. Most fruit really only takes a few minutes.

If you want to add instant flavor and a little flare, you can marinate your fruit in citrus juice, sprinkle it with spices like cinnamon or cardamom, or splash it with a little bourbon before grilling. For extra sweetness, glaze it with a little honey or maple syrup toward the end of cooking using a pastry brush.

Then comes the fun part: how to use your gorgeous grilled fruits. Keep it simple with dollops of lightly whipped cream, a melty scoop of vanilla ice cream, or even sweetened mascarpone or yogurt.

Or use it to top thick grilled slices of pound cake, tuck it into warm shortcakes for a new twist on a classic, or turn it into an eye-popping sundae (think grilled bananas here).

Of course, grilled fruit doesn’t have to be eaten at the end of the meal. It also makes a terrific partner to grilled meats, poultry, and fish, and is excellent with cheese or over greens in a salad. Some of my favorite savory combinations include:

Grilled watermelon with crumbled feta and mintGrilled nectarines with crumbled goat cheese on a butter lettuce saladGrilled apricots with pistachios over an arugula saladGrilled plums alongside grilled pork tenderloinGrilled pineapple on a Hawaiian-style burgerGrilled mango-pineapple salsa with cilantro and lime over chickenGrilled mango with salmon filletsGrilled peaches with fresh mozzarella and basil and a drizzle of balsamicGrilled avocado toast with lemon and crushed red pepper flakesSo, the next time you fire up your grill, consider grabbing a few peaches from the fridge and adding them to your menu. You’ll not only impress your guests, but you’ll have dessert (or a fabulous accompaniment to your main dish) covered.

***

Select peaches that are freestone and semi-ripe. You ideally want them to be a little on the firmer side so they don’t completely collapse when they are grilled. Nectarines, plums, and apricots can all easily be substituted for the peaches using this same method.

If you want an even easier dessert, serve the grilled stone fruit with scoops of vanilla ice cream instead of the whipped cream (although you really don’t want to miss out on this whipped cream, it’s sooooo good).

Grilled Peaches with Bourbon Whipped Cream

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 peaches or nectarines, preferably freestone

— Neutral-flavored oil such as light olive, canola, or coconut or melted unsalted butter, for brushing

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

— Pinch of fine sea salt

Prepare a gas grill for direct heat cooking over medium heat.

Run a paring knife all the way around the seam of the peach, then gently twist it to separate it into 2 halves. Pop out and discard the pit. Place the peach halves on a rimmed baking sheet and brush both sides lightly with oil.

To make the whipped cream, in the bowl of a stand mixer or using a hand mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the cream, sugar, bourbon (if using), vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Beat to medium-soft peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To grill the peaches, brush the grate clean. Place the peaches cut side down on the grate and cook until nicely marked and starting to look juicy, about 5 minutes.

Using tongs, turn the peaches and cook on the skin side until nicely marked and the peaches are tender, about 5 minutes longer. (The timing really depends on the firmness/ripeness of the fruit.)

Transfer the peaches to individual serving bowls or plates and top with dollops of whipped cream. Serve.

***

Use fresh pineapple for this recipe, as canned just won’t work well. Choose a pineapple that smells fragrant and sweet, an indication that it’s ripe. You can also use precut and peeled fresh pineapple purchased at the store for this as well.

Grilled Pineapple with Toasted Coconut and Caramel

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 fresh, ripe pineapple (about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds)

— Neutral-flavored oil such as light olive, canola, or coconut

— Coconut or vanilla ice cream, for serving

— About 1/2 cup caramel sauce, warmed

— About 1/2 cup flaked, unsweetened coconut, lightly toasted

Prepare a gas grill for direct heat cooking over medium heat. Brush the grate clean. Put the coconut in a 10-inch cast iron pan on the grill. Toast the coconut, stirring often, until it is fragrant and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the coconut to a bowl and set aside.

To cut the pineapple into slices, lay it on a cutting board and, using a large sharp knife, cut off the top and bottom of the pineapple. Stand the pineapple upright and cut away the outer peel.

Use a paring knife to cut away the “eyes” of the pineapple. (I like to cut a shallow groove in a spiral following the “eyes,” as it creates a nice pattern when you slice it.)

Cut the pineapple into 1/2 to 3/4-inch-thick slices. You should have approximately 6 slices. Cut out the cores using a paring knife or a small round biscuit cutter.

Lay the pineapple rings on a rimmed baking sheet, and brush lightly with oil on both sides.

Place the pineapple slices on the grate and grill until nicely marked and starting to look juicy, 5 to 7 minutes. Using tongs, turn the pineapple and grill until nicely marked on the other side and slightly tender, about 5 minutes longer.

Transfer the pineapple slices to individual plates. Top each portion with a scoop of ice cream, then drizzle with caramel sauce. Sprinkle with the toasted coconut and serve.

Kim Laidlaw is a Petaluma-based food writer, recipe developer and cookbook producer. Reach her at kim@castironmedia.com

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