Yet ripeness can be a much more relative concept than one might expect.
Harold McGee, in his landmark book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," wrote that ripening was "long considered to be an early stage in the fruit's general disintegration. But now it's clear that ripening is a last, intense phase of life. As it ripens, the fruit actively prepares itself for its end, organizing itself into a feast for our eye and palate."
Ripeness has, of course, always mattered, but today's emphasis on local and seasonal foods may be honing and articulating an appetite for it as an ideal.
You can experience ripeness in two ways this season with two new books, both called "Ripe": Nigel Slater's recipe-filled musing on fruit called "Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard" (Ten Speed: $40) and Cheryl Sternman Rule's rainbow-hued book "Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables" (Running Press $25).
Still, determining when to join in on McGee's proverbial ripeness feast has long been dictated by necessity and personal taste. Slater, for example, writes lyrically of "walking round the garden late on an autumn morning, pushing past the spiders' webs that festoon the pathways and plucking those last, wine-colored berries from their blackened canes is as good as life gets."
Fruits and vegetables do reach a peak stage in life. A vine-ripened red tomato is a perfect example. But that doesn't mean the produce is inedible before or after that point, says Willi Galloway, author of "Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover's Guide to Vegetable Gardening" (Sasquatch, $29.95).
She focuses on the delicious possibilities found in eating produce at the various stages of its life. How one prepares the vegetable or fruit will depend on the age, she says, noting that young small arugula leaves will end up raw in salads while older, tougher leaves go into pasta sauces.
Gardeners like Martin, Slater and Galloway have a far easier time deciding when something is ripe for them. The rest of us must follow the dictates of supermarkets and, if we're lucky, farmers markets or roadside stands. Use your senses to judge quality and ripeness. Touch, smell, nibble if you can; don't go by looks alone.
"Just because it looks perfect doesn't mean it will taste perfect," Rule says, urging consumers to ask questions, especially at farmers markets.
"Speak up, ask them to pick for you," she suggests. "Being bold and unafraid is my biggest piece of advice at farmers markets. And that goes for the produce manager at the supermarket as well."
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 4 minutes
Makes: 6 appetizer servings
Note: This recipe from Cheryl Sternman Rule's "Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables" (Running Press, $25) puts ripeness to work, using fruit in a savory, summery appetizer.
4 whole-wheat flatbreads (4-6 inches wide)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup (4 ounces) mascarpone cheese
3 medium firm but ripe peaches (about 1 pound), peeled, thinly sliced
1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1. Remove half the orange zest in fine shreds, the other half in long coils. Squeeze orange juice into a small bowl.
2. Brush flatbreads with oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat on the flip side. Grill bread over medium direct heat, flipping once, until they puff slightly and grill marks appear, 3-4 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
3. Season the mascarpone with 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper, the shredded orange zest (save the coils) and 2 tablespoons orange juice. Stir until smooth. Divide among the flatbreads, spreading thickly. Top with peach and onion. Cut each flatbread into thirds (if oblong) or quarters (if round).
4. Place the vinegar in a small microwave-safe bowl; microwave until slightly thickened and reduced by about half, about 1 minute. Drizzle over flatbreads. Garnish with the coils of orange zest. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 296 calories, 16 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 231 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Prep: 15 minutes
Makes: 2 servings as a light lunch
Note: British food writers don't all swear allegiance to the strict, everything-measured-exactly style of recipe writing found in the United States. Here's a wonderful example from Nigel Slater's "Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard" (Ten Speed Press, $40). The idiosyncrasies — what is a "generous handful" or "a little" parsley anyway? — are balanced by the simplicity of the dish, which is echoed in the telegraphic delivery of the recipe. "The sweet-sharp notes of the cherries lift the smoky, herbal notes of cured ham in the same way small tomatoes will,'' he writes.
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons whipping cream
Parsley, finely chopped
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 ounces thinly sliced cured ham, such as lomo, speck or coppa
4 generous handfuls salad leaves
4 handfuls cherries, halved, pitted
Put the mustard in a small bowl with the vinegar, olive oil, salt and a grinding of pepper. Whisk together; whisk in the cream. Add parsley. Tear the ham into strips. Toss the salad leaves with the ham. Add cherries. Drizzle over the dressing.
Per serving: 500 calories, 32 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 391 mg sodium, 9 g fiber.