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Peaches, native to China, have been consumed by man for at least 4,000 years. The geographical itinerary that brought them to America is similar to other Asian fruits. It goes like this: From China they spread to Persia. From Persia they went to the Mediterranean, (with a little help from Alexander the Great). The Greeks and Romans spread them throughout Europe while the Spanish explorers and English colonists introduced them to America. Commercial production in America began in the 19th century. California is the top US producer although they are grown in many other states. China, Italy, Greece and India are the leading producers outside of America.
Like most other foods, peaches have been credited with all kinds of medicinal and mythological properties. Man’s innate inability to accept his mortality generates a timeless quest for panaceas and potions. Subsequently, peaches have been touted as a cure for stasis, inflammation, allergies, and many other conditions. They are also associated with longevity. Chinese folklore claims that peaches were consumed by immortals. Oh, and they also ward off evil spirits. This is very convenient because if you’re going to live forever, you don’t want your eternity plagued by malevolent entities.
Returning to reality, there are hundreds of varieties of peaches but most can fall into one of two bi-dimensional categories. Yellow fleshed peaches tend to be more acidic and tangy. White fleshed peaches, the most common in American supermarkets, are generally sweeter and lower in acidity. Similarly, peaches are either freestone, (the overwhelming produce aisle favorite), or clingstone which are used almost exclusively for commercial production, such as canned peaches. As their monikers imply, freestone peaches have pits that are readily detached from their flesh while clingstone peach pits tenaciously resist.
American peaches are available May through October. Peaches from the southern hemisphere will keep you supplied in winter. Select specimens that are fragrant, plump, and devoid of blemishes or soft spots. When ripe they will yield to slight pressure. They are best when ripened on the tree but if not, leave them out on the counter or place them in a paper bag to ripen. Do not refrigerate peaches as the cold inhibits their flavor. Peaches are a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C.
Peaches can be poached, broiled or grilled. They are used to make pies, jams, sorbets, soufflés and brandy. They are sometimes employed as an accompaniment to savory dishes such as calves liver or duck. Or, they can be the star of the show as in Peach Melba.
Peach Melba is a dessert consisting of vanilla ice cream, peaches poached in a vanilla flavored syrup, and a topping of raspberry sauce. It was invented by the famous French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), in honor of the popular opera singer Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931).
Vanilla ice cream, as needed
Poached peaches, (see recipe below)
Raspberry sauce, (see recipe below)
Mint leaves for garnish
· 2 cups water
· 1 ½ - 2 cups sugar (depending on how sweet you prefer it)
· 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
· Half a cinnamon stick
· 3 whole cloves
· 3 peaches
Combine all of the ingredients except the peaches in a saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer, whisking as needed to melt the sugar. Cut the peaches in half vertically, working you knife around the pit in the center. Then you must remove the pit. If the peaches are hard and unripe this can be tricky. After cutting them, you may need to grab each side and twist hard to separate the halves. I then take a small narrow knife and cut around the pit as much as possible. Then with a teaspoon, or ideally a grapefruit spoon, I gently pry out the pit without breaking the peach flesh. Of course you can escape all this drama by employing ripe peaches.
Add the peach halves to the poaching liquid. Place a small plate or the lid from a small pot on top of them to keep them submerged. Poach them until tender. The time will vary on the ripeness of the peaches. Unripe peaches will take about ten minutes, give or take. Riper peaches will take less. Periodically check for doneness by inserting a small knife or fork into them.
Remove the peaches and chill them or simply leave them in the syrup in the fridge to cool. The syrup can be used for other fruit, ice cream, pancakes, etc. You can simmer it further, sans peaches, to increase its thickness.
· 6 oz. fresh raspberries
· ¼ cup sugar
· Splash of Chambord
Rinse the raspberries and whiz them in a food processor until pureed. Scrape them out into a small saucepan. Whisk in the sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes, a little longer for a thicker sauce. Finish by whisking in a splash of Chambord and simmering briefly. (Chambord is a delicious raspberry liqueur from France). Work the sauce through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl to remove the seeds. Give it a final stir and cool.
ASSEMBLING THE PEACH MELBA:
Add some vanilla ice cream to a bowl. Place one or two peach halves on top. Drizzle with some of the raspberry sauce. Top with a mint leaf for garnish.
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