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A&E >  Food

Peaches play supporting role in savory dishes

It almost seems disrespectful to tinker too much with the perfection of a tender, juicy, perfectly ripe peach.

To this day, my favorite way to eat a peach is just like I did as a kid – leaning over the kitchen sink, peach juices running down my hands and arms. Somehow, this way of devouring the stone fruit feels almost honorable.

In a few short weeks, locally grown peaches will begin arriving in full force at our local farmers markets. When selecting peaches, let your nose be your guide. If a peach smells amazing, it will taste amazing. Understand that you can’t judge a peach by its looks alone. A beautiful, rosy peach may taste like cardboard. A not-so-pretty, dented, lopsided, bruised peach may be surprisingly flavorful. A peach with no fragrance, usually means no-taste – and that the fruit is most likely under-ripe.

When it comes to color, look at the background hue of a peach, not just the beautiful reds and oranges. When the overall background color, the tone behind the red and orange hues, turns golden, the peach is more often at its peak. If there are any green hues, the fruit is still under-ripe.

A peach should feel heavy for its size. Its flesh should give slightly to the touch. Stay away from peaches that are rock hard because, most likely, they were picked too early. The longer peaches are allowed to mature on the tree, the sweeter and more concentrated their flavors become.

It’s for this reason locally grown peaches, which travel much shorter distances from orchard to market, will most often taste better. They are typically picked at their peak of flavor.

Many grocery store peaches, which come from farther away, are often harvested well before the fruit’s flavor has had a chance to develop in order to account for travel time. Yes, they will look perfect and firm and large with their colorful, velvety skin, but they can be a disappointment, even mealy or tasteless, because they’ve been picked too early, then refrigerated, to slow down the ripening process. These peaches will never really become what they are fully meant to be.

If you do choose fruit that is slightly firm, leave it on the kitchen counter for a day or two and it will soften up. Peaches really love our climate. Bob and Shelly Berryman of Twin Springs Organic Farm in Rice, Washington, have been growing organic peaches every summer since 1981. The arid region near Lake Roosevelt, with its fertile soil, produces juicy, sweet and super-flavorful peaches.

“Getting tree-ripe peaches as a consumer is challenging because most commercial orchards do not want to go to the trouble and bear the costs that are inherent in harvesting tree ripe fruit,” Shelly Berryman said. “We do lots of tasting walks through a variety block before we determine when it is time to start picking.”

Each of the Berrymans’ peaches are tree-ripened and hand-picked. The Berrymans actually go back to the same tree several times, only picking the ones that are at their ideal ripeness, ensuring each and every peach has reached its peak flavor – clearly a labor of love. Their hands-down favorites are their luscious, low-fuzz Red Havens and their low acid, non-browning Blazing Stars.

Shoppers can find Twin Springs Organic Farm peaches at the Thursday Market on Perry Street, Liberty Lake Market on Saturdays and the Colville Farmers Market, beginning the last week of July.

As for varieties – there are hundreds – which can be further classified into clingstone, freestone or semi-freestone. This tells us basically, how firmly the peach attaches to the pit. Clingstones stubbornly attach to the pit, making halving them a little more challenging. But they tend to be softer, juicier and sweeter, and their flavor can make them worth the extra effort. Freestones, typically larger and less juicy, are easier to work with, especially in large quantities. Semi-freestone, a hybrid of clingstone and freestones, combines the pitting properties of freestones with the juicy sweetness of clingstones.

To remove peach fuzz, use a clean dry kitchen towel and gently buff the peach. If the peach is very tender and ripe, this may tear the skin, so instead hold the peach under running cold water and very gently rub off the fuzz with your fingers. To remove the skin altogether, simply dip peaches into a hot water bath for a few seconds and their skins will slip right off.

Not much needs to be done to a good ripe peach. They are mouthwatering simply sliced over vanilla ice cream for a refreshing dessert, or over Greek-style yogurt and granola. Baked into a simple rustic galette, or cobbler, their flavors intensify even more.

But more and more I’ve been trying to incorporate peaches into savory dishes.

One of my favorite ways to serve peaches is in salads. Place sliced peaches on a bed of arugula with crumbled goat cheese and toasted slivered almonds, then add a drizzle of a honey-white balsamic vinaigrette.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll grill the peaches. It’s refreshing and tasty. White balsamic vinegar is a little lighter and brighter on the palate and doesn’t dull the gorgeous color of the peaches like regular balsamic. But, if you can’t find it, substituting regular balsamic is just fine.

Peaches also are excellent in salsas. They like the heat of peppers, the acid of lime, and pair well with cilantro. In this recipe for grilled chipotle fish tacos, a spicy peach-habanero salsa brightens up the tacos and marries well with the smoky grilled fish. If the heat of the habanero scares you, substitute jalapeno for a milder option.

Skewering and grilling peaches is another fun way to prepare them. In this recipe for spicy jerk chicken and peach skewers, the sweetness and tartness of the peaches are the perfect complement to the spicy, flavorful chicken. This can either be served as an appetizer or a main course.

Peaches and nectarines can be used, in most cases, interchangeably in recipes, with just slightly varying results. Nectarines tend to be more acidic, with a lighter, brighter, lemony flavor. Peaches have a richer, deeper flavor with an almost musky quality. To decide between the two, go with the most fragrant.

Peach and Arugula Salad with White Balsamic Vinaigrette

For the vinaigrette:

2 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey, maple or agave syrup

4 tablespoons olive oil

Generous pinch salt

Cracked pepper

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 tablespoon finely diced shallot

For the salad:

3 ripe peaches, sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices

8 fresh basil leaves

6 ounces baby arugula (or other favorite green)

1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese

1/8 cup toasted slivered almonds

For the vinaigrette: Whisk all the ingredients of the vinaigrette together, in a small bowl.

For the salad: With a kitchen towel, gently buff peach fuzz to remove it. Slice peaches. Lay the basil leaves on top of each other, all going in the same direction, to make a stack, then roll them up. Thinly slice the rolled-up basil to make ribbons. Place the baby arugula, basil and peaches in a large bowl. Toss with some of the vinaigrette (you will not need it all), just use enough to coat. Top with crumbled goat cheese and slivered almonds. Serve immediately.

Serves: 4

Chipotle Fish Tacos with Cilantro Peach Salsa

For the tacos:

1 to 1 1/2 pounds grillable fish, at least 1 inch thick, such as halibut, Alaskan cod, sea bass, black cod, black rock fish or Mahi Mahi

8 (6-inch) tortillas (corn-flour mix), grilled

Lime for garnish

For the chipotle marinade:

2 to 3 large garlic cloves

2 to 3 whole chipotles (in adobo sauce)

1 tablespoon adobo sauce (from the can of chipotles)

4 tablespoon olive oil

zest from 1 lime

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (more to taste)

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

For the salsa:

2 1/2 cups diced just ripe peaches (about 3 to 4 peaches)

1/4 cup finely diced red onion

1 to 2 teaspoons minced habanero (or use jalapeno for less spice)

1/2 cup chopped cilantro (tender stems OK)

1/8 cup fresh lime juice, or more to taste

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt or more to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

For the marinade: In a food processor, blend all the marinade ingredients into a fine paste. Rub fish generously with marinade and let marinate at least 1 hour or overnight in the fridge. (You could also freeze fish in the marinade in a zip-top bag and save for later or take it camping with you.)

For the salsa: Very gently, rub the peaches with a towel to remove fuzz, keeping the skin intact. Dice and place in medium bowl. Halve and seed the habanero, and mince as small as possible. Sprinkle only 1 teaspoon of habanero over the peaches (about 1/3 of the habanero). You can always add more, so start conservatively. Add the rest of the ingredients, and gently fold them together. Spread the habanero evenly throughout the salsa, taking care to not over mix.

For the fish tacos: Grill the fish over high heat to get a nice sear on both sides. Make sure grate is clean and oiled and use a metal spatula. After a few minutes on each side, move to a cooler spot, or turn heat down to medium, cover grill and finish cooking until it’s cooked to your desired doneness. You could also finish in the oven. Give a good squeeze of lime, and taste for salt, adding if necessary. Give the tortillas a quick sear on the grill. Assemble the tacos by placing the fish in the tortillas and topping with peach salsa, then skewering to keep closed. Or serve family-style on a platter with stacked tortillas wrapped up in a towel, extra lime and cilantro. You could also serve sliced avocado and/or crumbled queso fresco and your favorite hot sauce.

Grilled Jerk Chicken and Peach Skewers

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar)

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

8 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons molasses

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 Scotch bonnet peppers, or habaneros (hotter) or jalapeños (milder) with seeds, chopped in half

1 red onion, chopped

4 green onions, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon ground ginger

3 to 4 large peaches

Cut chicken into 1 inch cubes.

Make marinade by placing all ingredients – except for chicken and peaches – in a blender and processing until smooth. Marinate chicken at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours. Soak skewers.

When ready to skewer, slice peaches into half-inch thick wedges. Pre-heat grill. Using gloves, skewer chicken alternately with peaches, 3 of each on each skewer. Grill over medium-high heat, giving a nice char, then either turn grill to very low and cover or place in a 350-degree oven until chicken is done.

Makes: 14 to 16 skewers

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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