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A Passion For Peaches

Local peaches showed up at the farmers market here in Knoxville the last week of June. This is about two weeks earlier than usual, and because only one vendor had them, he may have been growing an early ripening cultivar. Whatever the explanation, their appearance posed a problem: Do I make peach ice cream or peach cobbler for the Fourth of July? Perhaps I should make peach shortbread.

I love peaches and find it easy to overindulge when they're in season. When I was a kid growing up on a 43-acre farm in east Tennessee, we had a half-dozen peach trees. They didn't produce particularly well — they certainly didn't produce enough to satisfy the peach hunger of my family — so we'd end up buying a bushel or so at the farmers market. These would be turned into cobblers and pies, eaten raw and made into ice cream. Mostly, they'd be frozen so we could enjoy a taste of summer on a frigid January night.

On a 43-acre farm in east Tennessee, we had a half-dozen peach trees. They didn't produce particularly well ... so we'd end up buying a bushel or so at the farmers market. These would be turned into cobblers and pies, eaten raw and made into ice cream. Mostly, they'd be frozen so we could enjoy a taste of summer on a frigid January night.

Peach season overlapped blackberry season. There was a fallow field behind our house covered with blackberry brambles, so we'd pick blackberries and freeze them, too. What I recall most from those halcyon days was my father's blackberry-peach cobbler. The luscious sweetness of the peaches acted as a perfect counterbalance to the acid tartness of the wild berries.

Peaches are a perfect example of why you should purchase produce locally whenever possible. Peaches are a delicate fruit and bruise easily. Fortunately, local peaches are not difficult to find. Although peaches in general don't do well in cold climates, the best peaches I've eaten in my life were grown at a farm near my house when I lived in New Hampshire.

Peaches (and their smooth-skinned version, nectarines) originated in China, from where they were carried along the Silk Road to Persia (Iran). In fact, the word peach is a corruption of the word persia. Peaches are in a class of fruits known as stone fruits or drupes that includes plums, apricots and cherries (as opposed to apples and pears, which are pomes). Drupes are distinguished by a single seed in the center, and peaches and nectarines vary from other drupes because their seed is rough and convoluted instead of smooth.

Peaches are further classified as being cling or freestone. The flesh of a cling peach holds onto the pit (stone), while in freestone varieties, the stone essentially floats in the center. There's no significant difference in flavor between the two varieties, but freestone peaches have become more popular over the past 30 years because they're less messy to eat and can be sliced neatly for baking.

Peaches have either yellow or white flesh. The white-fleshed varieties are usually less acidic and are particularly popular in Asian countries, while Europeans and Americans developed and tend to prefer the more acidic yellow-fleshed fruit. The red skin on a peach or nectarine doesn't indicate ripeness. It is just a characteristic of a particular breed. For ripeness, look for a skin color (yellow or red) with no hints of green.

Peaches also are related to almonds, and you may have noticed that a peach pit has a noticeable almondlike odor. And if you've seen the inside of a peach pit, you'll have noticed the actual seed looks like an almond. Consequently, I like macerating (soaking) peaches in amaretto because the almond flavor of the liqueur highlights the peach flavor. Also, when I first learned that peaches came from Asia, I began experimenting with some of the less common Asian spices such as cardamom, coriander seed and ground mace, all of which complement peaches delightfully.

The recipes below are focused on complementary flavors. For example, the smoky flavor and dash of heat provided by chipotle peppers complements the sweetness of broiled peaches. Peach muffins are flavored with cardamom and mace. The peach gastrique gains assertiveness from ginger, and the peach crepes feature almond flavors.

As for my Fourth of July meal, I decided to go with pan-roasted duck breasts and the peach gastrique and finished the meal with peaches macerated in amaretto and served in crepes — not exactly a traditional meal for the Fourth, but with fresh peaches, no one complained.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kevin D. Weeks