Summer's end brings the last of peaches

Peach and cantaloupe soup, left, and peach and onion salad make good use of the last of the summer's peaches. BY JACK CLEMONS
September 3, 2012

My demo last weekend at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market almost didn’t happen. When the market invited me, I offered to feature peaches. I didn’t realize that it was probably the last weekend of the season for peaches. Or that the vendors would bring fruit fresh-picked and firm, instead of ripe enough to eat. Fortunately for the demo, the folks at Bennett Orchards searched through their baskets to find a few specimens soft and ready for me to use.

Long before peaches were one of Delaware’s largest crops, they were cultivated centuries ago in China and widely in Persia – hence their botanical name, Prunus persica. They were brought to Virginia in the early 17th century and became popular at Jefferson’s Monticello. It took almost 200 years before we saw large-scale commercial peach production in Delaware, Maryland and (of course) Georgia.

Peaches have soft, fuzzy skin in shades of gold and yellow with hints of red. This juicy fruit comes in two varieties, clingstone and freestone, a description of whether or not the flesh adheres to the pit. The flesh itself can be white (which has lower acidity) or yellow (which has tangy sweetness). Because peaches continue to ripen after being picked, the vendors at the market brought fruit that would be perfectly ripe within a day – to avoid the problems of bruises and soft spots.

Once I had peaches, I shopped for the other ingredients I needed for the demo. Community Organics for cantaloupe, Baues’ Busy Bees for honey, Nice Farms Creamery for yogurt and Hattie’s Garden for mint and arugula. Now it was time to peel all those peaches: give them 30 seconds in boiling water, drop them in a bowl of ice water and gently pull the skin from the flesh. Be sure to tug off the skin over the mixing or serving bowl to catch every drop of juice.

The first dish I made was a refreshing Peach and Cantaloupe Soup. As you can guess, the main ingredients were chopped peaches and cantaloupe. These are pureed and then combined with honey, yogurt and lime juice. For a lunch side or dinner appetizer, plain yogurt is the best choice. If you wanted something sweeter, vanilla yogurt would be a good substitute. One member of the audience told us he wanted to try it for cocktail hour – mixed with a shot of peach schnapps.

To contrast the silky smooth soup, I showed the group how to assemble a Peach and Onion Salad laced with cayenne pepper. This is a dish that works well with any variety of sweet onion, such as Vidalia, Maui and Walla Walla.

Unlike yellow onions, these are not at all pungent because of their low sulfur content (no crying while slicing). They also have higher water content, which helps create a flavorful dressing for this salad. Between the juices from the onions and peaches, the only additional liquid is lemon juice.

As people tasted the salad, you could see when the cayenne heat registered: sweet peach, followed by crisp onion, hint of lemon and a sneaky blast of pepper. This is a dish you can easily adapt by substituting green or red onion and by scaling up or down on the seasonings. Another variation is to turn it into a garnish for grilled chicken or pork instead of serving it on a bed of arugula.

For those of you lucky enough to have them, celebrate Labor Day with the last peaches of the summer.

Peach Salad

6 ripe peaches
1 sweet onion*
juice of 1 lemon
1/8 t cayenne
1/8 t coarse black pepper
1/2 t kosher salt

Pit, peel and thinly slice the peaches. Peel, halve and thinly slice the onion into wings or crescents. Combine peaches, onion, lemon juice and seasonings in a large serving bowl; toss to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for an hour before serving on a bed of arugula or as a garnish for grilled chicken. *Note: select Vidalia, Maui or Walla Walla varieties.

Peach Soup

6 ripe peaches
2 C cantaloupe chunks
1 C plain yogurt
1/4 C honey
zest & juice of lime
Mint sprigs

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut a small X through the bottom of each peach, drop into the water and blanch for 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer peaches to a bowl of ice water. When peaches are cooled, drain well and peel from the cuts at the bottom. Discard skin and pits. Cut peaches into chunks and place in a deep bowl or a blender. Add cantaloupe and blend until smooth (or use an immersion blender). Whisk in yogurt, honey, lime zest and juice (do not use a food processor). Transfer to a serving bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.