If you're a peach lover, you just hit the jackpot. Lucky for us, 65 percent of peaches (and 175 different varieties) produced in the U.S. are grown in California. Even luckier, this seems to be an especially good season for peaches of all kinds. Depending on conditions, peach harvest occurs late May through August. I have discovered some super-sweet peaches (particularly the white ones) at various local grocers - the Danville and San Ramon farmers markets, Safeway, Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Ranch 99.
Peaches, native to China, are considered the oldest cultivated fruit and are stars among the single-stone fruits, or drupes, which also include cherries, plums and apricots. Although peaches and nectarines are often treated as different fruits, they belong to the same species as peaches. Nectarines are often erroneously seen as a cultivated mix of peaches and plums because of their smooth, often redder skin. In reality, the history and first appearance of nectarines are unknown. The peach is significant in Chinese culture: The peach tree is considered to be the tree of life and peaches are symbols of immortality and unity.
The flesh of peaches and nectarines is delicate and easily bruised but can be firm in some varieties. Peaches are either clingstones or freestones, depending on whether the flesh sticks to the stone or not; both varieties can have white or yellow flesh. White-fleshed peaches are generally very sweet with low acidity (most popular in Asian countries) while yellow-fleshed peaches usually have greater acidity coupled with sweetness (more popular in Europe and North America).
Peaches are a good source of vitamins A, B and C. More good news: A medium peach contains about 30 calories. A peach's sweetness is set at the time of picking so select carefully. For maximum flavor, peaches should be purchased from a reliable farm source, where they have been recently picked. The most important indicator of ripeness is a sweet, heady peach aroma. Also, the peach will have a yellow ground color, below the blush color and medium-soft flesh. Once home, peaches should be stored at room temperature and eaten soon, as refrigeration robs them of their flavor.
While peaches are in the prime of their season, buy them often to eat fresh, to cook on the grill and serve with ice cream or to make some wonderful recipes, like this Peach Kuchen (a German torte-like cake, pronounced koo-hen). Better yet, consider canning a supply of them to break open during the off-season (see box). Your family will thank you for extending the love all year.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Simple Canning Process for Peaches
1. Supplies needed: canning jars and lids, saucepan, and plastic spatula. You will also need water, sugar, "Fruit Fresh" and peaches. Note: Choose tree-ripened peaches for best results, about 3 lbs. peaches per quart jar.
2. Heat jars and lids by immersing in hot water. Wash peaches, and immerse in boiling water for about 30-60 seconds; then dip them in cold water. The peels should slip right off. Cut each in half and remove the pits. Scrape the loose fibers from the pit cavity.
3. To prevent the peaches from darkening, soak them in a mixture of 3 quarts water and 2 Tbsp "Fruit Fresh" until you are ready to place them in the jar.
4. While the peaches soak, make a simple syrup of 2-1/4 cups sugar and 5-1/2 cups water in a saucepan. Heat until hot and keep the syrup heated.
5. Drain the peaches. Using a plastic spatula, pack them into the hot jars (cavity sides down, in overlapping layers) until there is only a 1/2-inch space remaining. Pour the hot syrup over the peaches, leaving a 1/4-inch space from the top of the jar.
6. Remove any air bubbles using a knife or a long, flat object. Seal the jar using the lids that have been heated in boiling water. Process jars in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.
7. Lay jars sideways on a cloth to dry, leaving space between them. Store jars in a cool place and use peaches, as desired, throughout the year.
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup shortening
1/4 cup milk
4 cups sliced peaches
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 Tbsp butter
1. Mix together flour, sugar, and baking powder, then add shortening, milk and egg and mix well.
2. Pour mix into a greased 8-inch by 8-inch pan. Arrange sliced peaches on top, sprinkle with the sugar, flour and cinnamon, then drip melted butter over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean).