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A perfectly ripe peach is a gift from the gods of late summer. But what if your peaches are not perfect? Here's how to play whatever hand you're dealt.
As I've written before in this series, a perfectly ripe piece of summer fruit is a miraculous little package sent straight from nature. It's hard to justify doing anything too fancy to it, and even when I want to, it usually doesn't last long enough in my house. If no one else eats it first, I usually find myself standing over the sink, juice dripping down my arm, in ecstatic amazement over that sweet summer goodness, before I've even had a chance to formulate a cooking strategy.
But if we're honest, we have to admit that not every peach that comes our way fits this picture of juicy awesomeness. Sometimes, nature hands you a bad peach. As Joe the produce guy in this Seinfeld episode put it, a bad peach is an act of God: "He makes the peaches. I just sell 'em!"
AVOIDING THE BAD PEACH
When you're choosing a peach, like with most other fruit, local is probably going to taste better (and may have more nutrients). So, if you can buy locally-grown peaches in season, you're off to a good start. Also, peaches with the stem still intact have a better chance of being sweet and juicy on the inside. And as you hold the fruit in your hand it should feel heavy for its size, which means a lot of juiciness (because water is heavy).
Also, the fuzz on the skin of peaches straight from the farm is much thicker than it is on many supermarket peaches. It can be so dense it's downright prickly, sort-of stabbing you in the lips as you try to take a bite. If you see peaches with thick, dense fuzz, this is a sign that they are probably fresh from a local source. Just use your thumbs to give them a good rubbing under cool water before you eat them - this will get rid of most of the fuzz and leave you with one tasty peach.
At the store, I choose peaches that are still hard, and let them to ripen on the counter in my kitchen. That way, I can be reasonably sure that as softness gradually develops, it's from gentle ripening rather than the manhandling of strangers. You can tell a peach is ripe when it's fragrant (it will smell like a peach, especially at the stem end), and yields to gentle pressure. The best place to press into a peach when you're testing for ripeness is the "shoulders," the rounded part at the top near the stem. That way, if your testing accidentally creates a bruise, it's up near the top where it won't be noticed as much when the peach is eaten or cooked.
If you have ripe peaches and aren't ready to use them yet, you can stick them in the fridge to slow the ripening process almost to a standstill.
PLAYING THE HAND YOU'RE DEALT
But even when you play your cards just right, you may still end up with the occasional less-than-perfect peach. In New Jersey this year, we've been having a very strange peach season. We've gotten a few peaches from some parts of the state that have been absolutely transcendent. But they've been hard to find at the farmers market, generally over-priced at Whole Foods, and non-existent in my CSA until this week.
From what I understand, the reason is the weather: we had a bizarrely warm start to our winter last year. After the trees had already lost their leaves last fall, the weather warmed up to ridiculous spring-like temperatures (something about El Nino, I believe). It was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve, the kids were wearing shorts, and trees began to bloom in early winter. When the wintry weather finally came in February, lots of those blossoms were frozen on the branches, so later, the spring bloom was less than usual. Peaches come from blossoming peach trees of course, so when you mess with the spring bloom, you mess with the peaches. So yeah, fictional-produce-guy-Joe was right: a bad peach certainly can be an act of God.
But when you're eating mostly plants, and trying to cook with the seasons, you have to play the hand you're dealt.
MEDIOCRE PEACHES TURNED Tasty
I was overjoyed when we finally got peaches in our CSA this week (more about CSAs here), but unfortunately, due to everything I just mentioned, they haven't turned out to be the wonderful, juicy fruit we spend all year yearning for. They haven't been mealy (thank goodness, probably due to the skillful care of our farmer), but they haven't been exceedingly sweet and juicy either.
The other day, I noticed a few fruit flies beginning to congregate around one of them. It was far from ripe, but it had a bruised spot, and the fruit flies were apparently developing a plan to move in. I figured it was time to rescue the peach from this sad fate and give it a nobler ending.
The thing is, it's much easier to make something delicious with perfect ingredients. The challenge is making something delicious with whatever mediocre ingredients you happen to have.
I washed the peach, cut out and tossed the bruised spot, and cut the rest of the peach into chunks. Since it hadn't had a chance to fully ripen and develop its own sugars, I tossed the chunks with a sprinkling of granulated sugar, and added a dash of cinnamon for good measure. Sugar draws out the moisture from fruit, so now I had a bowlful of decently sweet and juicy peaches. What to do with them?
I happened to have to have some really great sourdough on hand from my favorite local bakery. So I toasted a slice and spread on some mascarpone cheese I had left over from another cooking project. As it melted into the hot toast, I piled the peaches on top and mashed them into the toast a bit with a fork. But it still needed a punch of something else. I grabbed a few basil leaves, cut them into chiffonade, and sprinkled them over the peaches.
I took a bite and was blown away. It was really good. Basil is the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the peaches, along with the slight tang of the sourdough. The creaminess of the mascarpone ties everything together. I can only imagine how amazingly delicious this would be with perfectly ripe peaches (which, alas, I didn't have).
Please make this! Eat it for breakfast, serve it for brunch, call it a healthy dessert or a fancy snack. My friend serves them as an hors d'oeuvre at summer parties. Whatever you do, these Basil-Peach Toasts are one of the easiest things you can do with decent bread and in-season peaches (whether perfect or mediocre).
FANCIFIED TOASTS = GALETTES
It may be that the road to internet glory is paved with avocado toast, but just in case the same doesn't apply to peach toast, I decided to create a second recipe to gussy the whole thing up a notch. This week's Basil-Peach Galettes use the same basic ingredients but take a slightly fancier approach. I added a dash of lemon juice to keep the peaches from browning, and nestled the whole thing into flaky pie crust, rustically tucked up over the edges. And before baking, I slathered the pastry dough with mascarpone under those peaches.
The result is a beautiful-but-rustic tartlet, suitable for even the fanciest summer affairs. And far from mediocre.
Here are some more recipes to cook with whatever peaches you have this season. Since the sweetness of peaches can vary depending on so many factors, you should usually consider the amount of sugar called for to be just a guideline - so taste as you go. Also, don't underestimate the importance of a pinch of salt to bring the flavors into balance. Happy peach season!