Peaches are great, everyone loves peaches, right? And it's July, so they're finally beginning to show up in farmers markets around here, and although you can get imported ones year-round, the influx of local stuff usually means prices across the board will go down. Also good, right? Everything's so awesome and good, yay!
Except no. I mean, I have a big pile of peaches in front of me right this very minute, and they look so damn sexy, and yet I am not eating them. Why? Well, the year-round peaches that come from far away (often California) have to be less-than-ripe to survive the trip and are still unripe by the time you are shopping for them in the store. Local early-harvest peaches will be closer to ideal ripeness but are almost always cling peaches, which are a pain in the ass to eat and not quite as good as the more convenient freestone varieties. I realize this is some serious first-world-problem belly-aching, but seriously, few things are more frustrating than a sucky peach.
If you've ever looked at a can of peaches, you might've noticed that the peaches are described as "cling." Rather than a specific varietal, this instead refers to a general type of peach wherein the pit is firmly attached to the flesh. You know how sometimes the pit awesomely just falls right out, and other times you have gnaw around the pit whilst trying to hold onto all the slimy peach meat surrounding it, and it's so dissatisfying because there's all that peach left but it's just not worth all the effort and accidentally biting into the bitter pit, and why the fuck is this so hard?
So anyway, yeah not a big fan of cling peaches. The other, better type is referred to as "freestone." There's no easy way to visually determine whether a peach is cling or freestone. For the longest time, I thought it was just luck of the draw as to how easy to eat a peach was, but in fact it all comes down to the cultivar. The safest approach is to buy peaches from the person that actually grew it, like at a farmers market or at a farm, since they are likely to know all about their product. Unfortunately, unlike, say, apples, peaches are one of those fruits where the specific variety is almost never advertised in a supermarket. The most info you're likely to get is whether the peach is white or yellow.
Speaking of which, I'm continually amazed at how many people are unaware of the superiority of white peaches or that they even exist. White peaches have lower acidity than yellow and, in my experience, have a sweeter scent, and creamier, less fibrous texture, and even tend to have thinner skins and less fuzz. I guess some people like that yellow peaches have an acidic bite or something? For whatever reason, yellow peaches are more popular in Europe and the U.S., while white peaches are preferred in Asia. There's a sexist and/or racist joke in there somewhere. Regarding peach fuzz, if it bothers you, try wetting the peach down-the fuzz will still be there but less noticeable. If it really bothers you, get nectarines instead. Nectarines are peaches in which the gene responsible for fuzz is said to be recessive, and are not some sort of hybrid like some seem to think.
As far as ripeness goes, there's not whole lot that can be done other than lucking into a fairly old batch of supermarket peaches. Since their flesh is so delicate, it's something of a commercial necessity to ship them while they're still relatively hard. The issue of squeeze-testing is a bit polarizing, because peaches bruise so easily, but it's really the best way to figure out how ripe a peach is. I do it. There isn't a whole lot else you can do other than to try to get peaches that don't have to travel far, again another shout-out to farmers markets. If you're stuck with unripe peaches, placing them in a paper bag or covered bowl with a banana does hasten things some, but be vigilant lest the peaches become mushy.
Finally, and this is important, save those peach pits! Within the pit lives a pale oval nut that has a super-intense almond aroma, which makes sense because almonds and peaches (along with apricots and cherries) are in the same genus. Amaretto is made from apricot pits, after all. Conventional wisdom is that the nuts are poisonous, but the amount of potential toxins is actually quite small and can be effectively neutralized via heat. The nuts can be used to infuse liquids like cream or alcohol with almondy and slightly peachy notes, which can then be used to complement the peaches from whence they came in dessert applications. A fine fate for any subpar peaches you might encounter this time of year.
Prep Tips * To remove the pit, cut the peach in half along the vertical crease and down to the pit and twist. If you have cling peaches that are not suitable for this technique, use an apple corer on the peach and simply cut the pit out.
* To remove the skin, blanch the peaches in boiling water for 15 seconds, then immerse in ice water. The skins should slip right off.
* To remove attached flesh from cling peach pits, scrub the pits with a brush or scouring pad under running hot water.
* To make pits easier to crack open, toast in an oven for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees F.
Peach Pit Infusion 2 cups grain alcohol
20 peach pits
* Toast the pits and crack them open, then bruise the nuts within.
* Place the nuts and shell fragments in the alcohol in an airtight container.
* The infusion should be ready in as little as three days. To fashion into a liqueur, mix one part alcohol with one part simple syrup and a tiny bit of molasses. Otherwise, add it directly anywhere an almondy flavor is desired, e.g. heavy cream, cake batter, cookie dough, or peach maceration.
Grilled Peach Melba (This is my variation on a dish Escoffier created in 1900.)
1 scoop vanilla ice cream
* Crush some raspberries and mix into some balsamic vinegar.
* In a small pan, simmer the vinegar mixture until slightly reduced and thickened. Add a little sugar to sweeten a bit. Strain the sauce and reserve.
* Halve the peach and, of course, save the pit. On a hot grill, grill the peach skin-side up for a minute or 2 to make marks, then repeat on the skin side.
* Cut off a thin slice from the rounded side of the peach-half so it will rest flat on a plate with the pit-side up. Add a scoop of ice cream to the peach-half, then drizzle with the raspberry vinegar sauce.