Like the apricot 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.
However, a peach is not a peach is not a peach is not a peach, to injure Gertrude Stein.
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, no?)
Scientists have discovered peach endocarps (fossilized pits) dating back 2.5 million years — preceding humans — in the region of Kunming, China, although widespread cultivation there dates back only (!) to the 10th century B.C.
Despite its Chinese origins, the biological name for the peach is prunus Persica, a reference to its Persian “origins,” which is a nod to the trade route that carried it from China along the Great Silk Road through Persia and on to the West.
Producers and consumers both 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 — this latter variety increasingly popular going into canning peaches, which represents the destiny of a full 30% of the U.S. crop.
Throughout history, the peach has been thought of loftily, its blossom adorning the hair of brides in both China and Japan as a symbol of both virginity and fertility, a floral hat trick if you think about it.
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, although I’m not sure that you’d want to say that about Venus’ breast.
Whereas the pear comes close to the peach in the enticing seductiveness of its fruity sweetness, Francois thought its glass-smooth skin did not approach the allure of touching a peach. Indeed, an old French nickname for the pear is cuisse-madame, the lady’s thigh.
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 salad, a chunky, deconstructed version of the pudding-like guacamole seen hereabouts. It’s delicious, especially with some just-ripe Colorado peaches.
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
- Tortilla chips
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.
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