By Ida H. McGarity
Photography by Jody Horton
If you haven’t had the pleasure of sinking your teeth into a juicy peach right off the tree, you’re missing one of the sheer joys of Central Texas—a quick snap through taut fuzzy skin fills the mouth and coats the chin with an explosion of summer’s sweet abundance. Every year at this time, the lure of fresh peaches is so strong that it sends countless eager fans scattering through the Hill Country in search of the cherished orbs.
And it finds chefs and home cooks alike taking advantage of this window of time by incorporating the fruit into seasonal fare as much as possible.
Matthew Buchanan, chef and owner of The Leaning Pear Café & Eatery in Wimberley, refers to the peach as the “jewel of Texas,” and offers the treasure in sundry forms, including simple slices over a bed of mint, basil and arugula. “Personally, I find the less you manipulate ripe, in-season peaches, the better,” he says. Jam Sanitchat of Austin’s Thai Fresh agrees. Her popular peach ice cream—accented with a modest herb or spice—disappears from the shiny display case almost as soon as it’s added.
Other chefs are reinventing classics with a peachy twist. Louisa Shafia, author of the new book Lucid Food, uses the fruit to help cool her relish of pickled peaches and habanero, and bypasses the old-guard strawberry in favor of a peach shortcake topped with lavender whipped cream.
Some cooks prefer to quickly expose the fruit to flame for a tasty outcome (fruit that’s not overly ripe stands up best to heat). A few minutes on the grill or a quick sauté is enough to concentrate the fruit’s sugars and balance fiery rubs and bold meats, and the results make a healthier alternative to the traditionally high-fat, calorie-dense, starchy and potato-heavy side dishes of summer. Grilling or sautéing peaches can also provide an easy dessert for a hot weather meal, when the cook already feels barbequed by the triple-digit temperatures. Ice cream, mascarpone cheese and fruit sauces make simple yet delicious toppings.
With the many peach varieties available, Buchanan suggests consulting with local growers to find the best peach for your needs, but points to the Loring peach as one of his personal favorites. He also suggests buying extra peaches when you find a good one, noting that they freeze well and can be used later for cobbler, ice cream and sorbet. “Peaches are great as a pureed soup, grilled, tossed with arugula and aged balsamic, or made into a simple dessert like a croustade,” he says.
“The very best peaches were the ones I picked off the tree,” Sanitchat says, as she fondly remembers those she gathered on “upickem” day at Suzanne Santos’s Tierra Antigua Farm in Kyle. “They were the sweetest . . . best . . . I’ve ever had.” When she can’t pick them herself, though, Sanitchat finds plenty of fresh-picked local peaches at the farmers markets. “I don’t wait more than two days to use them,” she says. “They won’t be as sweet.”
When enjoying peaches, remember to think outside the crate—there’s more to this fruit than your grandma’s award-winning peach pie (though there’s not a thing wrong with peach pie). If you own a peach tree, prune when the tree is dormant to provide aromatic wood for grilling fish, poultry, game birds and pork; decorate the dining room in March with its lovely aromatic pink blossoms; and gather leaves at the end of summer, when they’re most pungent, to flavor drinks. Serving peaches allows you to bask in the shade of a country orchard and feel refreshed all summer long.
• How to remove a peach stone: Peaches are classified as either clingstone or freestone, depending on whether or not the stone adheres to the flesh. Choose the latter for ease in preparation. To remove the stone, slice down through the stem area along the dimple, then twist gently.
• How to peel a peach: To easily remove its peel, dip the peach in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then transfer to an ice-water bath until the fruit is cool enough to handle. The skin slips right off.
• How to grill a peach: Heat the grill to medium-low. Halve the peach and remove the stone. Set out two small bowls, one filled with melted butter or oil and the other with brown sugar, and dip the cut side of the halves first in the oil, then the sugar. Place face down on the grill, then cover and cook until grill marks appear and the peach has softened—usually about three to four minutes per side.
• How to sauté a peach: Heat a tablespoon of butter in a pan. Add the peach halves cut-side down and gently cook, covered, for about two minutes. Turn peaches over and cook about three minutes. Increase heat to medium high, sprinkle the halves with a little sugar and rapidly caramelize. Remove the peaches from the heat and drain on paper towels.