A juicy, fragrant orchard-fresh peach is one of summers’ greatest pleasures. It’s also an ingredient you’ll want to try in a satisfying array of dishes. Learn how to select the best and use them in five great recipes.
Even before you get them home, peaches are irresistible. Their yellow-red skin blushes at you from the produce aisle. The sweet fruit-and-flower aroma wafting out of the grocery bag inspires visions of fresh and healthful meals. But it is their flavor—fruity and full, a bit tropical, slightly creamy with a little acid tang—that makes them the stars of the summer kitchen.
Peaches improve every part of a meal, especially when combined with spicy or meaty flavors. Cook them into such entre´es as Cajun Shrimp and Peach Kabobs, page 10, and the Grilled Peach Salad with Ham, Mozzarella and Arugula, page 9. They also brighten up comfort foods. We added them to a breakfast favorite to create Peaches and Cream French Toast Bake, page 7. Dessert gets its due with Peach Melba Parfaits, page 12, an update of the classic combination of peaches and raspberries.
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BUYING FRESH PEACHES
There’s a crucial fact about growing great peaches, says Chris Eckert, president of Eckert Orchards Inc., which has been raising peaches since 1862 in Belleville, Illinois. “A peach won’t get sweeter after it’s harvested,” he says. That means you need to buy peaches that are already ripe.
When selecting peaches, look for fruit that is slightly firm with no wrinkles, that yields somewhat to pressure. The red blush is an indicator of the variety of peach, but not its ripening status. For peaches that are always at peak freshness, check out a new brand in the story “Ripe ‘N Ready Peaches,” page 11.
Harvest is demanding, a race against time. Peaches are only at their best for a day or two in July and August, so workers hit the fields as soon as it’s light enough to see. The fruit is picked by hand and hauled by tractor to packing warehouses, where it is sorted, washed and packed in boxes. These are rapidly cooled to precisely 34°F to prevent what Chris calls the “cardboard flavor and texture” of fruit that has been allowed to get too warm.
“Peaches start to break down between 36°F and 50°F, so we don’t encourage our customers to refrigerate them,” he says.
Each day’s picking and packing is done by afternoon and Eckert peaches reach stores within 48 hours of picking, Chris says.
“The closer you eat that peach to the tree, the better it’s going to taste,” he says. “We’re excited to deliver that kind of experience for the consumer.”
Peaches sometimes need a day or two to reach their full eating potential. Do not refrigerate; instead, store peaches in a brown paper bag to let them soften.
The peaches won’t get sweeter, Chris says, but the tart acids in the fruit will begin to mellow out and they will seem sweeter. Peaches will keep at room temperature up to 5 days.
The fruit is a good source of nutrition. One large peach has 68 calories, 10 percent of your daily fiber, 11 percent of recommended vitamin A, 19 percent of vitamin C and 10 percent of potassium.
Many recipes call for peeling peaches before cooking. You’ll be able to slip their skins off easily if you give the fruit a 1 to 2 minute dip in a large pot of rapidly boiling water and then transfer them to a bowl of ice water.
To pit a peach, cut it lengthwise into halves around the pit. Twist the halves in opposite directions to separate them. Pull out the pit with your fingers.
When peaches are out of season, enjoy the flavor of summer simply by opening a can. Juice- and water-packed varieties are available if you’re watching sugar intake.
Dice canned peaches and add to Asian stir-fries. Or create a sorbet. Take the lid off of a heavy-syrup can of peaches and place it in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer contents to a blender or food processor. (The peaches will not freeze completely solid because of the syrup.) Process the peaches until slushy. Add sugar to taste, and serve. For a comforting winter dessert or snack, poach peaches in their canning liquid with a pinch or two of cloves. For a barbecue treat, canned peaches are good brushed with a little oil, sprinkled very lightly with salt and grilled just until grill marks appear and peaches are heated through.
Individually quick-frozen peaches are a lifesaver for smoothie lovers and wonderful for filling winter pies.
Chris likes to grill fresh peaches and serve them over ice cream. Here’s his recipe:
Wrap 3 cups of sliced fresh peaches in a foil pouch with about 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and a shot (2 tablespoons) of cognac. Seal up the pouch, set it on the grill for 20 minutes. Supporting the bottom of the packet with a wide spatula, remove the packet from the heat, let cool slightly and open pouch carefully—steam may billow out. Serve over ice cream.
RIPE ’N READY PEACHES
Which kind of peach lover are you: Do you like your peaches soft and juicy? Or crunchy and sweet?
Regardless of which you prefer, there’s plenty of succulent just-picked peaches waiting for you in the produce aisle at Hy-Vee.
If you prefer a soft peach, yellow-flesh peaches will be your ticket to fruit nirvana.
If you’re one of the rest who like crunchy, look for white-flesh peaches and nectarines.
Educating peach lovers about the differences between varieties is just one of the ways that an innovative fruit partnership in California is using its decades of expertise to improve the produce-buying experience for shoppers across the nation.
For more than 50 years, the Parnagian and Britz families of California’s San Joaquin Valley have been growing and shipping sweet, delicious peaches. They grow some very good peaches, which are available under the Ripe ’N Ready label at Hy-Vee.
The standards are strict. Of more than 2 million boxes of peaches raised this year by the two families, only a quarter of them will meet the sweetness and flavor requirements for the Ripe ’N Ready label, says Doug Sankey, marketing manager for the company.
The quest to deliver the perfect peach begins with planting the right varieties of trees, but it also involves sacrifice and patience. Ripe ’N Ready crews move through the orchards several times each season, thinning the fruit to ensure that the trees produce fewer, but larger and tastier peaches.
The crews wait to pick each peach until the fruit reaches maximum sweetness. “We try to keep the fruit on the trees a little longer than others might so they’ll be ripe when we pick them,” Doug says.
Once picked, peaches go to packing houses for cooling and crating—but with a difference. Ripe ’N Ready ships the fruit to Hy-Vee in special trays that are only one layer deep, with individual wells for each peach.
“The fruit doesn’t touch each other, and the produce we ship out seldom has issues with bruising,” Doug says.
Delicious Ripe ’N Ready peaches are available from mid-May to mid-September.
“There is something great about all the peaches,” Doug says. “Hy-Vee has great, great produce managers. They partner with the right people around the country. They’re very astute as to who is doing what.”
Preserve summer goodness all winter long by freezing a batch or two of peaches. Follow these directions from Elizabeth Andress, Ph.D, a food safety specialist and professor of foods and nutrition with the University of Georgia Extension.
The key to quality, she says, is to process the peaches start to finish without interruption. If peaches stand too long, their texture will begin to break down.
Start by selecting peaches that are ripe and give under gentle thumb pressure. Working in batches of about 5 pounds at a time, peel and pit according to directions on page 6.
In a very large bowl, stir together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice and 4 cups of water, or use a commercial anti-browning product such as FruitFresh mixed according to package directions. This solution will prevent the peaches from darkening. Cut peaches into quarters or thick slices, and transfer immediately to the water-lemon juice or anti-browning mixture.
With a slotted spoon, remove peaches from the solution, allow to drain and arrange in a single layer on cookie sheets. Put sheets in your freezer. Freeze until firm and then transfer to zip-top freezer bags.
Frozen peaches will keep 6 to 8 months. To thaw, allow to stand in the refrigerator overnight and serve while still slightly icy. Frozen peaches add delicious taste to pies and sauces for pork. Or eat thawed peaches on their own as a sweet reminder of summer.