Like the apricot, the cherry and the plum, the peach is a drupe (or a fruit with a large amount of flesh surrounding a stone-hard pit). It also shares with them membership in the family Rosaceae, the rose family.
More than 300 different varieties of peach grow in the U.S. alone, while over 2,000 grow globally. Six varieties constitute just over half of Colorado’s famed peach crop, a happy assortment to see after the near-total dominance of the Elberta peach in earlier years. (They are the O’Henry, Redhaven, Glohaven, Suncrest, Red Globe and Cresthaven. Sound like subdivisions, ha.)
The biological name for the peach is prunus Persica, a reference to its Persian (or, using contemporary geography, Iranian) origins.
Producers and consumers classify peaches by the color of their skin which varies through many yellows, reds and oranges; by the color of their flesh, again a wide range that includes white; and by whether the stone is freestone, clingstone or semi-freestone—or how easily the flesh separates from the stone.
Throughout history, the peach has been thought of loftily, its blossom adorning the hair of brides in China and Japan as a symbol of both virginity and fertility (a floral hat trick if you think about it for a moment).
King François I of France (1515-1547) raised 40 different varieties of peach and gave them human-like names such as Téton de Vénus (Breast of Venus) and Admirable. He considered the warm, soft, fuzzy knap of peach skin to be closest to that of human skin.
In cooking, the peach is a workhorse in sweet or dessert dishes of all sorts. But it also can play a role—and quite a delicious one—in savory preparations, two of which I supply you with here. We cooks substitute one fruit or vegetable for another all the time, subbing in a yellow summer squash for a zucchini, say, or an unripe pear for an apple.
The peach makes a splendid stand-in for the mango; cuisines other than our own homegrown American one use the mango in savory preparations. Such is the pilaf, a fine base for other savory foods atop it. And the guacamole (peach) salad, a chunky, deconstructed version of the pudding-like guacamole seen hereabouts. It’s delicious, especially with some just-ripe Colorado peaches available now aplenty.
Some foods are honored to carry the name of their home or supposed place of origin, such as the lima bean (Lima, Peru), the currant (Corinth, Greece) and romaine lettuce, “lattuga romana” in Latin, the lettuce of Rome.
That’s also true for the fruit named after the city in ancient Asia Minor called Cerasos (present-day Giresun in Turkey)—“kerasos,” in Greek, or “cherry” to us.
Many fruits or wild foods that we call “cherries” such as the chokecherry or the cherry tomato aren’t true cherries at all. We’re not cooking them here.
But to injure Gertrude Stein, a cherry is not a cherry is not a cherry is not a cherry.
Are they sweet or sour? Best eaten fresh out of hand or cooked into a jam or pie? Must I categorically use merely the Morello cherry for Black Forest Cake, as the classic recipe instructs? And what is a “maraschino cherry” anyway? It looks bogus.
In general, most sweet cherries eat more satisfactorily on their own, fresh or frozen and, of course, pitted (if possible). Around 900 varieties of sweet cherry (Prunus avium) grow worldwide. They aren’t entirely interchangeable to eat because each often has defining characteristics (more or less sweetness, for example, or darker or lighter juice and flesh). But, by and large (and to resuscitate Stein), a Bing is a Rainier is a Chelan is a Santina. They’re sweet and juicy and that’s why we love eating them.
The Prunus cerasus, or sour or tart cherry, sports around 300 cultivars worldwide, of which the Morello and Montmorency are the two most appreciated in this country. Along with varying amounts of sugar or other sweetener, they make our fillings for cherry pies and tarts, jellies and jams. (In Germany and surrounding countries, they are the basis for kirsch, the liqueur.)
The Prunus cerasus is also better than the sweet cherry for savory dishes, in which the world’s cuisines excel. Pitted and dried, they adorn many a Persian dish; fresh, they are half of the terrific Persian “polow” of rice steamed with sour cherries. The Belgians love their rabbit fricassée with sour cherries and the French enjoy “cailles aux cerises” (roast quails with sour cherries).
South Dakotans whip up “wojapi,” a thick sauce of sour cherries and honey that they serve alongside any manner of grilled meat. Overall, tart cherries are delicious with many a savory preparation of pork, duck, salmon or chicken.
About those maraschino cherries, their not-seen-in-nature scarlet hue and the Shirley Temple cocktail: They began long ago with the Marasca cherry of Croatia where they were crushed, preserved and pickled (not sweet, no ma’am). Nowadays, “maraschino” cherries are made from any old cherry, sweet or tart, that is pitted, brined and (get this) bleached so that they may be sweetened maximally with sugar and colored deeply with red food dye.
And plopped into Shirley Temples.
Savory Peach Pilaf
Makes 6 cups. Serve this topped with a spicy dal or other “curried” dish or as a side dish with anything you choose: meat, fish, vegetable and so on.
1 tablespoon ghee, clarified butter or neutral cooking oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon garam masala (or yellow curry powder)
1 medium-sized green or red chile pepper, heat level your choice, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed very well, soaked for 30 minutes, then drained
1 large or 2 medium very ripe peaches, peeled, seeded and crushed into pulp
1/2 cup cashews, preferably unsalted and unroasted, soaked in warm water for 1/2 hour, then drained
1 cup water
In a thick-bottomed Dutch oven or pot, heat the fat over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds and when they start to sputter, add the garam masala (or curry powder), the minced chile pepper and turmeric and stir well for 30 seconds until everything is fragrant.
Add the drained rice and stir until the grains are coated and begin to take on color, just a couple of minutes at most. Add the crushed peaches, cashews and water and stir well again. Bring everything to a boil, lower the heat to simmering, cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes (a few minutes more at higher elevation) without disturbing.
Turn off the heat and let the pilaf stand for 10 minutes at least (with the lid of the pot still on). Then lift the lid and fluff the pilaf with the tines of a large fork and serve.
Spicy Peach-accented Guacamole
A reminder that the full name of “guacamole” is “guacamole salad.” Makes 2 cups.
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 large New Mexican Hatch or Colorado Pueblo chile, charred, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 medium avocados, pitted, flesh cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup scallion, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 large ripe Colorado peach, peeled if desired, pitted and chopped
3/4 cup cilantro, leaves and tender stems, chopped
Salt to taste
Assemble all ingredients in a large bowl and mix and fold. Let the flavors blend for 30 minutes before serving, cool or at room temperature. This is rough-hewn guacamole, not a puréed one. Serve in small bowls or plates with tortilla chips to the side.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]