At First Blush

A pile of ripe peaches is ripe with possibility, from pie and crisps and crumbles to a good soak in wine or a toss with greens for a sweet-and-savory salad.

A tree-ripened peach needs nothing but a place for the juice to drip after your face dives into it. It is like no other fruit, with a complex bouquet of multiple flavors that changes from peach to peach. Thus, the orchard that grows the world’s best peaches is often the one closest to your house.

Once you’ve gotten used to properly ripened peaches, the store-bought alternatives quickly lose their appeal. That disappointment in the available peaches is what inspired Tom and Lynn McCamant, my peach growers here in Montana, to start Forbidden Fruit Orchard.

I buy their peaches by the boxload, at farmers markets (there’s a good range of stone fruit on offer at Monterey County’s farmers markets, as well, many from the warmer climes of the Central Valley). Whether I’m enjoying them fresh or preserving them at the peak of freshness for later use, there are few local foods as shockingly special as peaches and decidedly superior to the imported version as peaches, and now is the time to get on it.

For both preserving and cooking, look for free-stone peaches, the flesh of which easily relinquishes the seed. The other category, called clingstone, are fine for eating – you barely notice a difference. It’s impossible to tell from the outside if a peach is free – or clingstone; you have to ask.

To have ripe peaches on hand is to have a world of possibility at hand. I spend the majority of my peach-eating time leaning over the sink, my face plunging repeatedly into juicy, messy peach flesh. But when peaches are in season, we can afford to mess around. Tom’s favorite way is diced with heavy cream (40-percent fat – the stuff at Costo in the half-gallon cartons).

I used to forever be on the hunt for new ways to preserve my peaches, so as to enjoy their sweet glory through winter. I’d can them in quart jars, spending hours in the steamy kitchen blanching and peeling and sealing bright orange peach halves in syrup, or putting away pints of jam, sometimes with blueberries or huckleberries. I finally settled on peach slices in the dehydrator as my go-to peach storage technique. Each slice is like a drop of sunshine, and they are among the most treasured items in my freezer.

Of course, when one thinks of peaches, one might think of sweets. Pies, crisps, crumbles, sautéed and swirled into ice cream – it’s the stuff that stone fruit dreams are made of. But don’t overlook how well peaches pair with savory foods, because you’d be overlooking a simple yet sophisticated way of getting more peaches on a plate.

During the deliciously long evenings of summer, when the coals are still warm, I’ve been laying peach halves on the grill, fuzzy-sides down. Sometimes I’ll add pieces of chopped ham and pickled peppers to the spot where the pit used to be, and top it with cheese. When the cheese melts, I’ll sometimes drizzle balsamic vinegar or reduction. Or consider wrapping a peeled peach half in a drape of prosciutto and a drizzle of that balsamic and putting that on the grill, where the fruit and the meat mingle and blend into something wonderful – that blend of fatty, fruity and savory flavors has the wide-ranging complexity of bacon-wrapped cheese-stuffed fig.

Place those grilled peaches in their meat blanket on a bed of dressed arugula, give it a nice sprinkle of fresh pepper and crunchy Maldon sea salt and who needs dessert anyway?

Wine-soaked peaches


 

  • One bottle red wine (try Belle Glos from Las Alturas in Monterey County)
  • 3 tablespoons fine sugar
  • cinnamon stick
  • 2 pounds peaches, peeled and cut into chunks

Mix the wine, sugar and cinnamon stick in a large bowl. Add the peaches, cover and chill (overnight if possible).

Serve the peaches over ice cream or thick chilled yogurt, drizzling some of the wine over it for an added flavor boost.

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