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Thursday, July 2, 2009 02:58 pm

Everything's just peachy


It’s one of my earliest sensory memories: climbing our old white peach tree, picking one of the rosy fruits, and taking a big bite. The taste was sweet, floral, delicate — almost ethereal. The peach had been basking in the sun, and the hot sticky juice ran down my chin as I ate. Decades later I can still taste and feel it.

The first local peaches began showing up at the farmers’ markets a couple of weeks ago. They’re even more welcome this year than usual because the late spring freezes in 2008 destroyed the central and southern Illinois peach crops, as well as much of those even further south. One farmer had a few dozen peaches. They were incredibly huge — the size of softballs. The sole survivors of the freeze, they’d received all the nutrients normally provided to a treeful of fruit.

Peaches have been around for a very long time, in fact, some food anthropologists believe peaches were the first cultivated fruits. They originated in China and have been cultivated there since at least 1000 B.C.E. Chinese culture bestows special significance on peaches: the peach tree is also known as the tree of life, and peaches are symbols of immortality. They also denote unity; Chinese brides carry peach blossoms. Wild peach trees can still be found in China; their fruit is small, sour and very fuzzy.

From China, peaches made their way to Persia (modern-day Iran) via the silk trade routes, and became so popular there that their botanical name is Prunus persica. In many languages, the word for peach is the same as the word for Persia. The Romans so valued them that individual fruits sold for the current-day equivalent of $4.50.

Peaches spread throughout Europe and then traveled to the New World, first brought by Spaniards to South America. Columbus brought peach trees on his second and third American voyages. The French brought them to Louisiana and the English to Jamestown and the first settlements in Massachusetts.

Both white and yellow peaches fall into two other categories — clings and freestones. The terms are self-explanatory: the flesh of cling varieties cling to the fruits’ pits, while freestones’ flesh is easily separated from the pits. The pits are also known as stones, as they are in other stone fruits such as cherries, apricots and plums. Nectarines are a variety of peach with smooth skin. Like their fuzzy counterparts, they can be white or yellow-fleshed and cling or freestone.

White-fleshed peaches generally are less acidic and have a more delicate flavor with perfumey, floral overtones. Yellow-fleshed peaches have more acidity and a more pronounced taste. I don’t actually prefer one over the other; it just depends on what I’m doing with them. White peaches are, I think, best consumed pretty much as is. Slicing them, tossing them with a bit of sugar to bring out their juices and serving them over ice cream is about as complicated as I get with white peaches. The only exception is puréeing them for the famous Italian aperitivo, the Bellini.

Yellow peaches are also wonderful eaten simply, but their more assertive taste also lends itself to countless preparations both raw and cooked. Most fall into the dessert category, but they’re also used as accompaniments to savory dishes. Peaches are especially good with pork and cured pork products such as ham, proscuitto, or smoked pork chops.

Peaches pair well with blueberries and raspberries — not surprising, since they are in season at the same time. Peaches also have a natural affinity with almonds, to which they’re closely related (almonds are the “stones” in the fruit of almond trees). In fact, almond extract is obtained from the stones of the bitter almond — a variety that’s as close to apricots and peaches as it is to edible almonds.

A few recipes and ideas for peach preparations and preservation that I especially like follow. Good as they are, though, they’ll never be a match for a hot, fully ripened peach — white or yellow — straight off the tree.

Freezing peaches — You can peel and slice peaches, toss with a little citric acid (powdered Vitamin C) or lemon juice and freeze in containers. Or you can do what I do: Put whole unpeeled peaches in a large plastic freezer bag and stick them in the freezer. That’s it — nothing could be easier. Do a quantity at a time, or just throw them in the bag whenever you have an extra peach or two that would otherwise spoil. This is not only the easiest method of freezing peaches, it’s also the easiest way to peel peaches, fresh or frozen. Hold the frozen fruit under running water for a few seconds until the peel loosens. It will slip off easily. Cut the peaches while they’re still icy.

Bellini cocktail — this white peach classic was created at Harry’s bar in Venice, Italy’s Cipriani Hotel. Place 1-2 tablespoons of white peach purée in the bottom of a champagne glass and fill with sparkling wine. The original uses Italian Prosecco, but Champagne and other sparkling wines work just fine. A red raspberry makes a nice garnish. To purée peaches, place peeled peaches in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Add a little lemon juice (about 1 tablespoon per cup) to prevent browning as well as sugar to taste. Extra can be frozen (ice cube trays work well).

Peach Sangria — Spaniards enjoy sangrias made with white wines as much as those made with reds. Combine 1 ½ c. peach purée with one bottle of chilled white wine. I especially like Spanish Torrontes wines for this, but any medium dry to dry fruity wine works well. Just avoid any heavy, oaky buttery wines — some types of Chardonnay fall into this category. Stir in ½ c. peach brandy or peach schnapps or more to taste. Serve in a pitcher with ice and garnish with peach slices and green grapes.

Peaches Melba was created by the iconic French chef Escoffier to honor the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba (as was Melba toast). It consists of vanilla ice cream topped with poached peaches and red raspberry coulis (uncooked sauce) It’s just as good — if not better — with fresh peaches and raspberries. Another suggestion: turn it upside down by serving peaches over raspberry sorbet.

Peaches and almonds — take advantage of peaches and almonds’ natural affinity by topping sliced peaches (over ice cream or not) with toasted almonds or adding almonds to the flour/sugar/butter/oatmeal topping of a peach crisp or crumb-topped peach pie. A drop or two of almond extract can enhance peaches’ flavor whenever they’re cooked, but be cautious — too much extract will overwhelm the peaches’ own flavor.

Grilled peaches — peaches are wonderful fruits for grilling. Choose fruit that is ripe, but not overripe. Cut in half and remove the stones. Melt butter with an equal portion of dark brown sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Brush the fruit with this mixture and place cut side down on the perimeter of the grill away from the hottest part of the fire. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, just until the fruit has softened slightly and the sugar/butter mixture has browned and begun to caramelize. Grilled peaches are good for dessert, as is or over ice cream, but they’re also wonderful as an accompaniment to grilled pork or poultry.

Peach salsa — Toss two cups chopped peaches with 2 T. lime juice, then add ½ c. chopped sweet onion, 1/4 c. chopped cilantro, and minced jalapeno or Serrano peppers to taste. Serve with tortilla chips, as an accompaniment to the meats above, or to grilled fish, shrimp, or other seafood.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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