This is the second installment from our new correspondent Jennifer aka Baklava Queen, who lives in northeastern Ohio and blogs regularly at Rolling in the Dough. (Read her first guest post, on canning tomatoes.)
For almost every August I can remember, my family dedicated one Sunday of the month for a leisurely drive up to the Marblehead Peninsula. Part of our reason for the hour-and-a-half-each-way drive was to enjoy a last summertime glimpse of Lake Erie, and a last gasp of wind-in-our-hair freedom before we settled into the routine of the school year.
The main motivation for the journey, though, was to collect baskets of ripe peaches from our favorite orchard. We’d pile back into the car, eager to slice into the first peach and to divvy up the pieces, enjoying the burst of sunshine sweetness on our tongues and the dribble of juices down our chins before heading back out onto the highway for the drive home.
The next day, the Chef Mother and I would head into the kitchen bright and early, hoping to get our work underway before the stifling heat and humidity made standing over the stove a misery. Sometimes we’d peel and can the peaches in halves or slices, with a light syrup poured over the top, and sometimes a fresh peach pie would find its way either onto the dinner table or into the freezer. Mostly, though, we’d make our family’s “friendly” jam, thick and gloriously golden with a hint of orange to make the peach flavor all the more vivid and sweet.
As a result, I find now that I simply can’t fathom eating fresh peaches at any other time of year than when they’re in season here. But I have come to appreciate the sheer friendliness of peaches in cooking, not just in eating them unadorned. Peaches get along famously with other summer fruits, like berries or cherries, and being a stone fruit relative, they also pair well with almonds. They drop a veil or two when paired with different spices, becoming sultry with cinnamon, exotic with cardamom, and endearingly brazen with ginger. Add them to salads, encase them in pastry, or just splash them in a puddle of white wine, and you really can’t go wrong.
But their compatibility with a number of herbs, for some odd reason, remains relatively unexplored. Mint seems to be the best-known herbal partner for peaches, though most recipes I’ve seen that match the two tend to relegate the mint to the status of garnish, a mere afterthought. Surely, I thought, there must be other herbs that would enhance a peach’s sweetness and lush texture?
My cooking friends have learned that when I start asking myself questions like that, they’d better clear a wide path to the kitchen, because I’m likely to start experimenting. And I can now report that my experiments in this case indicate that peaches and herbs should, indeed, be reunited.
Like many other summer fruits, peaches have an affinity for floral herbs, such as lavender. (I confess to a strong partiality for lavender, though I’m aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.) I decided to make what I tend to call a “micro” batch of jam, pureeing four peaches and combining them with 2 tablespoons of local honey, a teaspoon of dried lavender blossoms, and about ½ teaspoon of vanilla. After bringing the puree to a boil, I let it simmer for about 15 minutes, allowing the jam to thicken to my desired consistency. (I like my jam a little runny; feel free to modify your own favorite peach jam recipe accordingly.)
The experiment resulted in a mere cup and a half of jam, but a smear of the preserves on my whole grain pancake the next morning proved that I had a worthwhile combination on my hands, one that might be worth repeating next year.
But, as with many other fruits, peaches can take on savory herbs as well. I’ve come across many a recipe for peach salsa, but I’d never made it before and thought it might be worth trying when I had a quart of ripe and juicy Red Haven peaches sitting in the refrigerator.
Instead of following the various recipes to the letter, however, I decided to improvise. Since cilantro has a tendency to bolt by this time of the summer, I was unable to find any at the farmers’ market. Instead, I pulled out some of the fresh mint I had bought, as well as some fresh basil, and since both had blossoms at the top of a few sprigs, I decided to use the herbs’ flowers in the salsa. (Yes, they’re edible, too!)
My first attempt tasted very good, but I knew it wasn’t quite what I had planned. I also found that even after the salsa sat in the fridge overnight, the herbal flavors failed to make much of an impression, so I knew I would need to increase the quantities of those ingredients – carefully.
The second time around, I used some not-fully-ripe Harmony peaches from a local orchard and Pink Thai Egg tomatoes, as well as the other ingredients, all found at the farmers’ market. I started by cooking the chopped red onion and the hot pepper in a bit of olive oil over low heat, letting them take their sweet time to carmelize.
Once I was satisfied with the color of the onions and the heady aroma coming from the pan, I added the peaches, tomatoes, and everything else, allowing the whole mixture to simmer and thicken a while longer.
A couple days later, I finally got around to a taste test of the two versions. The original batch tasted more like salsa, with the sweetness of the peaches offset by the bite of the onion and a hint of heat. In the second batch, though, the herbs offered more of a contrast, the carmelized onions added depth, and even though I had used the same quantity of the same kind of hot pepper, this version had more heat.
Which one is better? That’s a tough call and would depend on individual taste. I like them both very well, though I do like the herbed version a little more. Salsa lovers will probably like either one.
Both experiments are a long way from the more traditional peach preserves I learned in my younger days, but I think it’s hard not to love peaches in whatever form they take.
Peaches and Herbs Salsa
Makes 1 pint of salsa
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced thin and chopped coarsely
1 hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp minced fresh basil
1/4 tsp salt
5-6 peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped
1 1/2 c chopped tomatoes
1 tsp minced fresh mint
1/2 tsp minced fresh basil
Juice from 1/2 lime
In large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Saute red onion and hot pepper until onion is carmelized. Add garlic, 1/2 tsp basil, and salt, and sauté another 2-4 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until thickened.
Alternately, omit olive oil, and cook everything together over low heat until the salsa has simmered and thickened.
Pour into sterilized glass jar, cover, and store in the refrigerator or freezer.