There is no fruit more brazenly flavorful, yet unabashedly tender, than the peach. The immature fruit is hard and green, not unlike a raquetball in size and texture. As the season progresses, and the sun shines and the rain falls, the peach plumps up and gets curvy and luscious, ripening to luminous shades of golden orange, pink and even rosy red. As a peach ripens, its downy “peach fuzz” gets longer and softer, and provides our greatest clue to freshness. Each time the nearly-ripe peach is handled, the down can be dislodged and damaged (not to mention the bruising that occurs when a ripe peach is manhandled!); a fuzzier peach has been recently harvested and handled lovingly. Some might say that all that fuzz gets in the way of eating the peach, but the true peach-lover covets the moment of impact—fuzzy tongue, juice-spattered chin, sticky fingers and all.
Physically, there are two types of peach, and two main color categories within those types. Freestone peaches ripen with a hollow around the pit in the middle, making them easy to pull apart and very succulent to eat. In contrast, clingstone peaches stay attached to their pits, requiring a knife to cut sections but, in return, maintaining their shape in salads. Clingstone peaches also tend to ripen earlier than the freestones, making them the first peaches on the scene each year. The acidity of the fruit can be generally assessed by observing the color of its flesh—white peaches are lower in acidity than yellow peaches, resulting in a milder floral flavor and aroma.
PEACHES TO LOOK FOR
Every peach has its moment of being the best—don’t wait for your favorite to appear! Instead, eat liberally of all peaches, and decide on a favorite at the end of the season.
Champion (white, clingstone)
White Lady (white, clingstone)
Redhaven (yellow, semi-clingstone)
Saturn (white, freestone, also called Donut)
Suncrest (yellow, freestone)
Salem (yellow, freestone)
Georgia Belle (white, freestone)
Indian Blood (yellow, clingstone)
Elberta (yellow, freestone)
According to buylocalvirginia.org, there are 71 U-Pick facilities in Virginia. Of those, 15 of them include pick-your-own peaches, with several notable producers right around Charlottesville. While Mother Nature signals both the beginning and end of each fruit’s season, chances are good that peach production will peak in July and August—and U better be ready!
What is U-Pick all about? In addition to the experience of being there, U-Pick operations offer fresh, luscious fruit at reasonable prices because you provide the picking labor. You see, having folks harvest and purchase their own fruit eliminates a lot of the guesswork inherent in running a fruit operation. Instead of finding markets and trying to align supply and demand, U-Pick businesses can focus on raising the fruit—no small task when you consider the year-round tree maintenance such as propagating, grafting, pruning, pest control, and irrigation.
When picking, remember that the perfect peach must be mature, and it must be ripe. Maturity is achieved on the tree, and signals the peak of sweetness. Look at the background color of the fruit—green means immature, and if that peach is picked, it may soften but it will not reach its zenith of sweetness. Mature fruit should seem illuminated from the inside, glowing an irresistible yellowish-gold.
Peaches are a climacteric fruit, which means they continue ripening after harvest. Ripening is the softening of the flesh that eventually slides into decay; it is accelerated by warm temperatures and by bruising, and slowed by refrigeration. If a peach is firm to the touch, leave it at room temperature until it feels delicious.—Lisa Reeder
Turn that brown upside down
Many fruits (and some vegetables) turn brown after they are cut—apples, bananas, peaches, and avocado, to name a few. This oxidation occurs when the enzyme polyphenol oxidase is exposed to air. To minimize oxidation, one must manipulate acidity or limit exposure to air. Cut apples and pears may be soaked in acidulated water—that is, water with citrus juice or vinegar added—but this trick ruins the plump, velvety nature of a ripe peach.
Instead, a bit of lemon or lime juice squeezed on peach slices will keep them beautiful for a short while and accentuate the counterpoint of tangy and sweet. If your peaches are going in a composed salad, consider slicing them and dressing them with lemon, lime or even a bit of the vinaigrette you’ll be using—but still slice them as close to mealtime as possible.
If it’s a fruit salad you seek, or a dessert, the peaches might benefit from soaking in some peach or pear or apple juice to prevent browning and to boost the flavor of the salad. One could even imagine drizzling those rosy, ruddy beauties with a bit of champagne, vinho verde or cream just to see what happens.—L.R.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocal notion.wordpress.com. Next month’s local ingredient: pickles.