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Summer Fruit : Support Your Local Peach

July 14, 1994|LESLIE LAND

Thanks to peach-growing areas in California, South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey, U. S. consumers enjoy a peach season that lasts from May to October. But as marketing expert Martin Eubanks put it in a recent conversation, "When you hit the month of July, well, everybody that's going to have peaches has 'em."

That's everybody including home gardeners, truck farmers and small orchard owners, as well as major growers. From Alabama to Oklahoma, Pennsylvania to Kansas, in Idaho, Texas and Kentucky, ours is a nation just dripping with lovely ripe fruit. But much of it is far too fragile to travel more than a few hundred miles.

More than a few hundred yards is more like it in the case of the best old-time varieties, which is why the peaches you see in supermarkets are sturdy commercial types such as Red Haven (from Eastern growers) and Flavorcrest (from the West). Though the list of peach varieties is fairly long, it's not much use to the average shopper, because peaches are marketed generically, like carrots, with no more identification than the state they came from--if that. Fortunately, all of the major varieties can be quite tasty when conditions are right.

Of course, "quite tasty" is damning with faint praise when you're talking about what should be the most luscious of fruits, melting, perfumed and sweet. But these are qualities that do not lend themselves to long-distance shipping, multi-week storage and mass marketing. Even the old standard Elberta, once an industry staple, has become a specialty item now that there are more durable varieties. Loring, a delicious big yellow Southern peach that was on the most-grown list for years, is now getting harder to find because it lacks the red coloring that consumers have come to expect.

Yet red has nothing to do with ripeness. The sweetest, juiciest peaches of all aren't even yellow but a pale cream color usually called white. The high sugar content of white peaches makes them particularly vulnerable to bruising, but any truly ripe peach is very fragile. That's why they're all picked green. The trick is finding the ones that were the right green when they were gathered.

Peaches don't mature all at once, so pickers must distinguish among various stages of readiness. "Field walkers" accompany pickers in the orchards, carrying color chips to double-check for the proper shade of green-but-not-too-green. Once picked, the fruit must be cooled rapidly, then stored very cold for the shortest possible time. Unlike tomatoes, peaches don't mind this treatment. Once they warm up again, they'll ripen.

Well, within limits. Late peaches may be able to stand as much as a month in hibernation (early types scarcely store at all), but the dry or woolly flesh and brown hearts so common in end-of-season peaches come from spending too long in the cooler. So get 'em while they're hot.

PICKING A PEACH

Farm stands and farmers markets offer the greatest chance of delight, since they can sell tree-ripened fruit and unique local specialties. The color that matters most is green; the less of it there is, the better. Even among peaches picked at the right time, some will have been readier than others. Check around the stem area for "background color"; it should be yellow or cream, not chartreuse. Peaches that smell good will probably taste good. Be sure there are no specks or spots, early signs of the moisture-induced brown rot that can destroy a peach within hours.

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This is one of those sauces that's good on just about everything. It's slightly sweet, slightly hot, very fruity and aromatic with basil. But eat it right away; the fresh flavor and color do not keep.

PEACH AND ONION SALSA FOR GRILLED AND ROASTED MEATS

1 medium onion, cut into small dice

2 1/4 teaspoons salt

4 medium or 3 large peaches

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 jalapeno chile, seeds removed, finely chopped

1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves

Combine onion with 2 teaspoons salt in non-reactive bowl. Allow to stand at least 1 hour but not more than 1 1/2 hours. Onion will wilt slightly, throw off some juice and become much less pungent.

Drain juice from onion, rinse with cold water and drain again. Peel peaches and chop medium-fine with knife. Do not use food processor. Combine peaches in non-reactive bowl with onion, vinegar, jalapeno and remaining salt.

Finely mince basil and stir in. Serve at once. Makes 2 cups, 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about: 27 calories; 664 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.47 gram fiber.

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This is right on the edge between pudding and cake. Serve it hot from the oven with a pitcher of cold, heavy cream or turn it out of the pan, let it cool overnight, then slice it like upside-down cake.

PEACH AND ALMOND COTTAGE PUDDING

Butter, at room temperature

2 1/2 pounds peaches, peeled and cut into thick wedges, to equal 5 cups

3/4 cup flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon mace

Salt

3/4 cup packaged almond paste

1/2 cup sugar

3 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Grease non-reactive 8-inch-square baking dish with butter. Spread peaches in dish and set aside.

Thoroughly combine flour, baking powder, mace and salt in bowl. Set aside.

Cut almond paste into chunks and place in food processor or electric mixer. Process or beat briefly to break up. Beat in 9 tablespoons room-temperature butter. Cream in sugar. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts. Add flour mixture and process or beat just long enough to blend.

Pour batter over peaches. Bake at 350 degrees until top is browned and toothpick inserted in center comes out dry, about 1 hour. Makes 1 (8-inch) cake, or 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

348 calories; 233 mg sodium; 116 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.06 grams fiber.

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