A Passion For Peaches

Peach i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Peach
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

About The Author

After working as editor of various computer magazines, Kevin Weeks is now a personal chef in Knoxville, Tenn. Weeks also teaches cooking classes, is the Guide to Cooking for Two at About.com, and blogs at Seriously Good.

Local peaches showed up at the farmers market here in Knoxville the last week of June. This is about two weeks earlier than usual, and because only one vendor had them, he may have been growing an early ripening cultivar. Whatever the explanation, their appearance posed a problem: Do I make peach ice cream or peach cobbler for the Fourth of July? Perhaps I should make peach shortbread.

I love peaches and find it easy to overindulge when they're in season. When I was a kid growing up on a 43-acre farm in east Tennessee, we had a half-dozen peach trees. They didn't produce particularly well — they certainly didn't produce enough to satisfy the peach hunger of my family — so we'd end up buying a bushel or so at the farmers market. These would be turned into cobblers and pies, eaten raw and made into ice cream. Mostly, they'd be frozen so we could enjoy a taste of summer on a frigid January night.

How To Pick A Peach

Picking: Choose peaches that are already ripe, as peaches do not continue maturing after picking. They will get softer and their color will develop further, but they will not get sweeter. Choose tender peaches with skins that have no green undertones; they should smell strongly of, well, peaches.

Storing: Hard peaches will soften if stored at room temperature (don't refrigerate hard peaches, as they'll get mealy and dry). Fully ripe peaches are best refrigerated.

Shipping: Because they're so delicate, shipping tree-ripened peaches is not a good idea. California peaches found in Tennessee, for example, are picked before fully ripe and shipped refrigerated. So it's best to buy locally grown peaches in season.

Peach season overlapped blackberry season. There was a fallow field behind our house covered with blackberry brambles, so we'd pick blackberries and freeze them, too. What I recall most from those halcyon days was my father's blackberry-peach cobbler. The luscious sweetness of the peaches acted as a perfect counterbalance to the acid tartness of the wild berries.

Peaches are a perfect example of why you should purchase produce locally whenever possible. Peaches are a delicate fruit and bruise easily. Fortunately, local peaches are not difficult to find. Although peaches in general don't do well in cold climates, the best peaches I've eaten in my life were grown at a farm near my house when I lived in New Hampshire.

Peaches (and their smooth-skinned version, nectarines) originated in China, from where they were carried along the Silk Road to Persia (Iran). In fact, the word peach is a corruption of the word persia. Peaches are in a class of fruits known as stone fruits or drupes that includes plums, apricots and cherries (as opposed to apples and pears, which are pomes). Drupes are distinguished by a single seed in the center, and peaches and nectarines vary from other drupes because their seed is rough and convoluted instead of smooth.

Peaches are further classified as being cling or freestone. The flesh of a cling peach holds onto the pit (stone), while in freestone varieties, the stone essentially floats in the center. There's no significant difference in flavor between the two varieties, but freestone peaches have become more popular over the past 30 years because they're less messy to eat and can be sliced neatly for baking.

Peaches have either yellow or white flesh. The white-fleshed varieties are usually less acidic and are particularly popular in Asian countries, while Europeans and Americans developed and tend to prefer the more acidic yellow-fleshed fruit. The red skin on a peach or nectarine doesn't indicate ripeness. It is just a characteristic of a particular breed. For ripeness, look for a skin color (yellow or red) with no hints of green.

Peaches also are related to almonds, and you may have noticed that a peach pit has a noticeable almondlike odor. And if you've seen the inside of a peach pit, you'll have noticed the actual seed looks like an almond. Consequently, I like macerating (soaking) peaches in amaretto because the almond flavor of the liqueur highlights the peach flavor. Also, when I first learned that peaches came from Asia, I began experimenting with some of the less common Asian spices such as cardamom, coriander seed and ground mace, all of which complement peaches delightfully.

The recipes below are focused on complementary flavors. For example, the smoky flavor and dash of heat provided by chipotle peppers complements the sweetness of broiled peaches. Peach muffins are flavored with cardamom and mace. The peach gastrique gains assertiveness from ginger, and the peach crepes feature almond flavors.

As for my Fourth of July meal, I decided to go with pan-roasted duck breasts and the peach gastrique and finished the meal with peaches macerated in amaretto and served in crepes — not exactly a traditional meal for the Fourth, but with fresh peaches, no one complained.

Peach Muffins

This muffin recipe really spotlights the flavor of peaches. The peach puree adds to the muffins' peachiness, and the yogurt provides acid to bring out the sweetness as well as produce a moister muffin. The mace (mace is the ground husk of a nutmeg, but has a completely different flavor) adds a lovely, slightly musky undertone of flavor to the peaches and has the same geographic origin as the original peaches.

Peach muffins i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Peach muffins
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 12 muffins

2 to 3 peaches, peeled, pitted and diced

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

2 large eggs

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted

Put peaches in a bowl. Taste, and if they're not sweet enough for your taste, add another tablespoon or two of sugar.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12-muffin baking tin with vegetable oil.

In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, mace and baking soda.

Puree enough of the peaches (about 1 1/4 cups) in a mini food processor to equal 1/2 cup of puree. The remaining diced peaches should total about 1 cup — a bit more or less won't hurt. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together peach puree, yogurt, eggs and butter.

Stir liquid ingredients into dry ingredients until just barely combined. Add diced peaches and mix again, being careful not to overwork batter.

Fill each muffin cup to almost full. Bake 30 minutes or until puffed and golden brown.

Baked Peaches With Chipotle

Chipotles are smoked jalapeno peppers. They have a hot edge but aren't that spicy — just enough to set off the sweetness of the peaches. Although chipotle is available as a ground powder in the spice section at many supermarkets, I prefer to buy whole chipotles and grind my own (in a coffee mill dedicated to grinding spices) so I can control how fine the powder is and how many seeds — the source of the heat — are included.

Baked Peaches i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Baked Peaches
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes 6 servings

3 large freestone peaches (it's easier to remove the pits from freestones while leaving each half intact)

2 tablespoons coarsely ground dried chipotle

3 tablespoons salted butter, melted

Heat oven to 375 degrees and line a small baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Wash fuzz off peaches by gently rubbing under running water. Dry, then cut peaches in half and remove pits. Place peaches cut side up on the baking sheet. Pierce peaches with a fork in several places, being careful not to break through the skin, and drizzle with butter. The fork holes enable some of the butter to get down into the peach.

Sprinkle about a teaspoon of chipotle on each peach and place in center of oven. Bake for 20 minutes.

These can be served straight up, but topping them with a dollop of mascarpone is also delicious.

Peach Gastrique

A gastrique is a French sweet-and-sour sauce. It is most often made using a fruit (in this case, peaches) with sugar for the sweet and vinegar for the sour. Gastriques in general are delicious on pork and poultry and sometimes lamb. They're not as good on beef. I've also made gastriques using apricots, cranberries, apples, pears, cherries and oranges. Here, ginger and coriander introduce an Asian flavor and add a slightly spicy edge to the sauce. The color of the gastrique will vary according to the color of the peach's flesh. Gastriques will easily keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and freeze beautifully for later use.

Peach Gastrique i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Peach Gastrique
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 shallot, peeled and minced

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3 tablespoons sugar

2 medium peaches, peeled, pitted and diced (about 2 cups)

3 tablespoons white wine

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed

1/4 teaspoon hot paprika

Generous pinch salt

Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, add butter and swirl to avoid burning. Add shallot and ginger. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and all remaining ingredients to the pan. Increase heat to high and bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. The gastrique should be a fairly equal blend of sweet and tart with a clear peach flavor, a slight mustiness from the coriander and a touch of heat from the paprika and ginger.

Puree until smooth (I like using my hand blender, but a standing blender also works well; a food processor produces a somewhat coarser puree). Serve warm or hot over broiled chicken, grilled pork, smoked duck or roasted Cornish hens.

Peach Crepes With Amaretto

Peach seeds have a distinct almond odor because they are related to almonds. So almonds are an excellent complement to peaches. The filling needs to be made in advance. In this dessert, I add some almond flour to the crepes, macerate the peaches in amaretto (an almond liqueur) and add a bit of amaretto to the mascarpone, which both sweetens and flavors the soft, Italian cream cheese. If the crepes are too much effort, serve the peaches on buttered and toasted pound cake — also delicious and far less effort.

Peach Crepes With Amaretto i i
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Peach Crepes With Amaretto
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR

Makes about 12 crepes

Almond Crepes

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup almond flour*

2 tablespoons sugar

2 large eggs

3/4 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons melted butter, plus 1 teaspoon butter for coating the pan

Using a standing blender or hand blender, combine dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients. Add wet ingredients to dry and blend thoroughly. Place the crepe batter in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Heat an 8-inch nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the extra 1 teaspoon butter and swirl to coat.

Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the center of the pan and swirl to spread evenly. Cook 30 seconds until lightly browned, then flip. Cook for another 10 seconds and remove to the cutting board. The first couple of crepes may not turn out well because the pan may be too hot, too cool, too buttered or not buttered enough. Adjust as needed.

Lay crepes out flat on a couple of paper towels so they can cool. I find it works best to have three crepes cooling at a time, and then move the coolest to a plate. Once completely cooled, the crepes can be stored overnight in the refrigerator, separated with squares of wax paper. Any that are not needed can be stored, once chilled, in a zippered bag in the freezer.

*Note: You can buy almond flour in specialty stores, but I make my own by repeatedly pulsing 1 cup of plain blanched almonds in a mini food processor. Be careful to stop processing while it's still a bit coarse to avoid ending up with almond butter.

Peach Filling

Makes enough for 4 servings

3 freestone peaches, peeled and sliced thinly

3 to 5 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 cup amaretto, divided

8 ounces mascarpone, at room temperature

4 almond crepes

Combine peaches, sugar, coriander and 1/4 cup amaretto in a medium bowl. Cover and let flavors blend, stirring occasionally, unrefrigerated, for 4 hours.

Using a hand mixer, whip together mascarpone and remaining 1/4 cup amaretto.

On a plate, spread about 1 tablespoon of mascarpone in the center of a crepe. Top with 3 or 4 peach slices and drizzle with juice. Fold crepe over peaches, add 2 or 3 more peach slices, top with mascarpone, and drizzle with a bit more juice. Repeat for remaining crepes.

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