If seasonal cooking is your thing, now is the time of the peach. But you can only eat so many pies in the span of a summer, and while dessert is the obvious go-to for stone fruit, there's more than one way to eat a peach. More restaurants, chefs, and home cooks are discovering the versatility of the peach — perhaps you’ve already encountered them served with your entree as part of a savory course, or you may have grilled a peach at home. The best way to make use of this season’s bountiful peach harvest is to take a few tips from the experts to jumpstart your peach experiments.
How to Choose Your Peaches
Chef, farmer, and Mississippi native Elizabeth Heiskell of Debutante Farmer and Woodson Ridge Farms offered useful and universal advice for peach-picking. "The less they travel, the better they're going to be," said Heiskell. "Knowing your farmer and buying from the local farmers' market is always the best choice. Especially in the summer, don’t buy your peaches from Chile."
One major difference between buying from the supermarket versus the farmers' market, is that, at the farmers' market you will likely be faced with options beyond peach or nectarine (which, by the way is basically a fuzzless peach). Over 2,000 varieties of peaches are grown globally, with around 300 flourishing in the United States. Those varieties are split into categories: freestone and clingstone. Luckily, the names describe what you’re getting — a peach where the flesh easily separates from the stone, popular for their ease of preparation, and peaches where the flesh clings to the stone. It can get confusing out there, but taste, texture, and sugar ratio are important in determining what peach to use for your chosen cooking method.
Becky Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm, where they grow about 35 different varieties of peaches in Brentwood, California, said, "If you're really interested in grilling, the Suncrest works well, coming up in mid-June." If you can't find the Suncrest in markets near you, Courchesne also recommends Cal Red, her personal favorite for grilling, or the O’Henry. "Clings don't work very well because, when you grill, you want the juices to pool up in the cavity, and that can't be done with a cling," said Courchesne.
The best thing about shopping at a farmers' market is, If all else fails, you can ask your farmer to recommend a big fleshy, juicy peach with great sugar acid ratio for grilling. They’re also likely to know which varieties to use if you prefer poaching, sauteing, or even stewing your peaches.
What and How to Cook With Peaches
"At Canelé we don't have a grill, so I like to pan sear peaches in a hot black steel pan," said Corina Weibel, chef/owner of the seasonally driven Los Angeles restaurant. "Toss them with a little bit of olive oil, sprinkle with a tiny bit of sugar, then deglaze with a bit of Banyuls vinegar. work fast so they don’t burn or turn to mush."
Weibel is all about pairing fruit with vinegar, especially champagne, balsamic, and Banyuls (an aged vinegar made from French sweet wine). She also recommends incorporating nuts into your peach dish. She uses toasted almonds with the burrata and stone fruit salad currently on the menu at Canelé.
"Peaches (and nectarines, apricots, and plums) are beautiful with burrata," said Weibel. "They are sweet but still have a lovely balance of acid, and as we pan sear them with a little Banyuls vinegar, the balance of sweet, tart, and creamy is so satisfying. It works as an aperitivo or a dessert."
Heiskell's favorite way to meet peach to flame is by cutting it in half, leaving the skin on, oiling it well, and grilling the peach face down until it's cooked. "Don't fool with it too much while it’s cooking, and let it sit and cool after," she said. Once it’s cooled off, Heiskell fills the center with goat cheese and pours bacon jam over the whole thing. “It’s a lovely first course for dinner or sliced for hors d'oeuvres.”
And when Heiskell has a peach surplus on her hands, she puts them in barbecue sauce to use them up before they go bad. "When people want barbecue, it's in the summertime, and that’s when peaches are in season," Heiskell said about the natural marriage of peaches and barbecue. "I love that combination of sweet, savory, and spicy, and barbecue sauce can stay in the fridge for up to three weeks."
Grilled or sauced, Heiskell recommends highlighting the delicate flavor of peaches by pairing them with a protein that won’t overpower the fruit. Try pork, chicken, or fish, and try a peach recipe or two.
Miss Joan's Grandmother's Recipe for Pickled Peaches (Courtesy of Elizabeth Heiskell)
"One thing Miss Joan mentioned was that the peaches need to be a little under ripe and you have to make sure they are good Southern peaches, not a puffy Californian peach (her words not mine!). Also they need to be small enough to fit in the jar whole — wide-mouth jars are best for canning these peaches, served whole with the pit." —Elizabeth Heiskell
- 8 lbs peaches left whole and peeled
- 5 lbs sugar
- 1 quart cider vinegar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 oz allspice
- 30 cloves
- Stud each peach with one clove. Mix sugar, cinnamon sticks, allspice, and vinegar and cook until sugar dissolves. Add peaches to the syrup in batches and make sure not to overcrowd them. Cook until they are just tender when pierced with a fork. Once all peaches are cooked, boil the syrup until it's thick. You may need to add some additional sugar.
- Place peaches in clean, hot sterilized jars. Pour syrup in the jars and cover the peaches. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and be careful while you invert the jars on a dish towel. Let cool overnight.
- It will be hard, but wait two weeks before enjoying these amazing peaches on a summer salad plate.
- Pro Tip: Enjoy pickled peaches with pork or chicken.
Grilled Peaches in Pancetta with Baby Lettuce (Courtesy of Becky Courchesne)
- 4 medium to large ripe peaches, peeled and quartered
- 2 oz thinly sliced pancetta or bacon
- 8 oz or 8 cups baby lettuce mix, rinsed and spun dry
- 1 small shallot finely chopped, or 1 tbsp
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp + 1 ½ tsp champagne vinegar
- 1 ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- 5–6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Make the Vinaigrette:
- Put the shallots in a bowl with the vinegar, lemon juice, and salt and let sit for 10–15 minutes. Then add the Dijon mustard and whisk in the olive oil, but do not emulsify.
- Add one twist of fresh ground black pepper.
- Prepare the peaches for grilling:
- If largish peaches, cut in quarters and wrap each quarter of peach in a 4–6 inch strip of pancetta. If smaller, cut in half and wrap each half in pancetta.
- On a hot grill lay the peaches on one side and grill for 2–3 minutes until pancetta is crispy and turn to other side. If using a half peach, grill the cut side down for 3–5 minutes, then turn over and grill the skin side until the pancetta is crispy and the cavity of the peach is releasing its juice.
- Toss greens in the vinaigrette and divide between four plates; lay pancetta-wrapped peach quarters on top and serve.