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Dare I Poach a Peach?

Cook fruit in syrup and make miracles.

August 02, 2000|THOMAS KELLER and MICHAEL RUHLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You probably don't realize it, but that old peach in the fruit bowl or those raspberries forgotten at the back of the fridge are but a simple step from not one but many dessert miracles, given nothing but a little sugar and water.

Simple syrup--sugar heated with water just until it becomes clear--is an incredibly versatile cooking tool. That single peach, those berries, poached in simple syrup, might be used any number of ways:

* Go simple and serve the poached berries or fruit on ice cream with some poaching liquid spooned over as sauce.

* Blend the syrup and berries together for an easy raspberry soup (add fresh cracked black pepper to give it bite).

* Reserve the raspberry syrup for another use and blend the fruit to make a raspberry coulis. Or do the same with the peach.

* Poach a peach in that raspberry syrup. Make a raspberry sorbet from the syrup and some of the cooked raspberries and serve the peach on top of it.

Variations are endless and will broaden your repertoire exponentially. Add wine to the poaching liquid to offset the fruit's sweetness with a little acidity. Or add spices or aromatics--vanilla bean, ginger, curry, pepper, citrus zest, star anise--to make it brighter and more complex.

The key to thinking about the dessert poaching liquid is to recognize that you are not only enhancing the flavors, you are in fact manipulating textures--whether softening fruit, turning berries into a smooth coulis or giving the berry flavor a syrup form. The fruit, which is a package of flavor, becomes more versatile when you understand how to remove its wrapper, so to speak, and present that flavor in a more pleasing or complex form.

Poaching fruit--just about any berry or firm-fleshed fruit will do (fruits like bananas or grapes might complicate your dessert menu more than you'd like)--is also a good way of preserving it. Berries about to go bad, fruit with just a few too many soft spots, will keep for several more days poached in syrup. And they'll be even more delicious.

This technique need not be reserved for desserts. Poach a pear in simple syrup, then reduce that poaching liquid to a glaze and add vinegar and oil to the glaze and you'll have the perfect vinaigrette for a salad of Belgian endive with poached pear and walnuts.

Here's an exciting poached fruit preparation for sauteed foie gras. Steep cut peaches in simple syrup, softening and sweetening them and infusing the syrup with the peach flavor. Reduce half the syrup to a glaze and add some vinegar to make what's called a gastrique, a sweet-sour sauce common in duck preparations. Chill the remaining poaching liquid until it gels like an aspic. Reheat the peaches on a grill, and there it is: foie gras with peach "Jell-O" and grilled peaches.

You can take a poaching liquid preparation to any level you imagine--as complex as that one, or as simple as warm poached fruit on cold ice cream.

In any case, the power lies in combining two of the kitchen's most ordinary items--sugar and water--to elevate and intensify flavors and to manipulate textures into unfamiliar and exciting forms.

Peach "Jell-O"

Active Work Time: 1 hour 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes plus 2 hours chilling

This is an elegant, refreshing dessert served at the French Laundry. A quenelle-shaped scoop of peach sorbet is set atop a small bowl of the lightly gelled poaching liquid and diced peaches and garnished with mint or powdered sugar. It's a more elaborate recipe than you'll want if you'd simply like to experiment with poaching liquids. If you've never poached fruit, try simply cooking some peeled sliced peaches in equal parts sugar and water, just enough to cover the fruit, until the fruit is heated all the way through and has infused the liquid. Serve fruit and liquid over vanilla ice cream. Or puree the fruit and liquid to make a smooth peach sauce for ice cream, tarts or cake.

1 2/3 cups white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

Water

1 3/4 cups sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup grenadine syrup

5 peaches

2 (1/4-ounce) packages unflavored gelatin

* Bring wine to boil in large, wide pot. Skim any particles that float to surface. Add 3 1/4 cups water and sugar and return to boil, skimming as necessary. Add lemon juice and grenadine.

* Make an "X" with a knife in bottom of each peach. Poach peaches in simmering liquid over low heat until skin starts to peel away from flesh, about 5 minutes. Remove from liquid and place in bowl of ice water. Peel while still warm. Cut peaches in half and remove pits. Puree 8 peach halves in blender until smooth and reserve. Dice remaining 2 halves in 1/4-inch dice. Reserve liquid.

* Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water. Let sit 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup poaching liquid, stirring to blend.

* Pour 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons poaching liquid into small pot. Add gelatin mixture. Heat over medium-heat until gelatin is dissolved, about 3 to 5 minutes. Chill in refrigerator until set, 1 hour.

PEACH SORBET

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons peach puree (from Peach "Jell-O" recipe)

1 teaspoon amaretto

* Heat water and sugar in saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves, about 2 to 3 minutes. Combine with peach puree and chill 1 hour in refrigerator. Add amaretto and process in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions, 25 to 30 minutes. Store in freezer.

8 servings. Each serving: 338 calories; 15 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 79 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.43 gram fiber.

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