CAN ANY RECIPE improve on a fresh, ripe peach?
Every summer, I think I’ve found an idea that justifies diverting the perfumed, blushingly luscious fruits into a muffin or smoothie or barbecue sauce. Almost always, I would have been better off leaving them unadorned. With rare exceptions (Renee Erickson’s “genius” peach cobbler is one), our most winning peach traditions involve just standing over the sink enjoying plain, drippingly juicy, Washington-grown fruit.
We think of peaches as a Southern or Californian phenomenon — and with decent reason. California produced well over half the nation’s fresh peach crop in 2017, according to federal figures, followed by South Carolina and Georgia. But Washington ranked seventh in peach production, and I’ve rarely tasted a better harvest than Red Havens from local favorites like Collins Family Orchards or Rama Farm, both of which sell at the University District Farmers Market.
I tried canning the peaches once, maybe one of those times when I bribed my teenager into coming to the farmers market to lug an extra case home. After carving an “X” at the bottom of each piece of fruit, blanching them and slipping off the skins, and processing them in a boiling water bath, they tasted … almost as good as any drugstore-shelf can of Del Monte. I’ve tried churning peach ice cream, but it can’t compare to the version at Woodside Farm Creamery in my hometown of Hockessin, Delaware, where farm stands brag about fruit from neighboring New Jersey, the state that ranks fourth in that national peach scorecard. Here in Seattle, what works for us is the same tradition made famous by Alice Waters of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant — just that single perfect peach for dessert. Except our version sometimes involves two or three.
I’m going into this summer with some more nuanced ideas, after discovering that Belinda Smith-Sullivan, a chef acquaintance who lives in South Carolina, had considerable expertise doing great things with great peaches. It’s not just that she lives in the “peach capital of the South,” she writes in her new book, “Just Peachy” (Gibbs Smith, $21.99), but that she spent childhood summers on her grandfather’s farm in Mississippi. “My grandfather was a cotton sharecropper, like all of the other farmers around him. Since no one had much of anything, bartering was a way of life,” she writes. “If you had an abundance of sweet potatoes and needed tomatoes, you bartered with someone who had an abundance of tomatoes and needed sweet potatoes. That’s how it worked, and no one wanted for anything. Neighbors took care of neighbors, and our neighbors delivered bushels of peaches to our doorstep throughout the heat of summer.”
Smith-Sullivan spent hours with her family peeling and slicing peaches for preserving, setting out hand-churned butter and homemade peach preserves in the morning as “stars of the breakfast table” awaiting fat, fresh biscuits. And no matter where she lived as an adult, she writes, “Whenever I came home to visit, I came home to a homemade peach pie from my mother. This tradition ended only with her passing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, evokes the memory of my mother or my grandmother more clearly than a peach pie still warm from the oven. While I have nearly perfected their recipes, I can tell you that mine never seem to taste quite like theirs, and I suspect that they never will.”
It occurred to me after reading her book that maybe my peach ice cream takes second place because my Delaware family isn’t here to share it, not because there’s anything lacking in the recipe or in our peaches. I’m seeking out new ideas for this year’s harvest, particularly recipes that incorporate the fresh peach instead of cooked fruit, augmenting perfection rather than altering it. And as a bonus, this recipe from Smith-Sullivan’s cookbook accepts slightly overripe versions of both peaches and tomatoes. It allows us the same benefits we seek from cooking or canning or freezing the fruit — that is, stretching out this brief, lovely late-summer season just a little bit longer.
Peach and Tomato Gazpacho
6 ripe peaches, quartered
6 ripe tomatoes, quartered
2 shallots, peeled and halved
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 stalk celery, with leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Kosher salt, to taste
Pinch of cayenne, or more to taste
Seasoned pepitas, for garnish
Lime wedges, for garnish
1. In a blender, purée the peaches, tomatoes, shallots, garlic and celery until smooth.
2. Add the oil, lime juice, tarragon, salt and cayenne; continue blending until all ingredients are combined.
3. Pour into a carafe or pitcher with a lid, and refrigerate. (Refrigerating overnight improves the flavor.) If desired, strain through a fine sieve before refrigeration.
4. To serve, ladle into bowls or cups, garnish with pepitas and lime, and drizzle with a little more olive oil.
From “Just Peachy” by Belinda Smith-Sullivan