A sweet and fragrant peach, ripe enough to drip juice down your chin, is one of the joys of summer. Native to China, where legends tell of this fruit's power to confer immortality, peaches now also grow in temperate regions of North America and Europe.
Peaches are members of the stone fruit family, their flesh concealing a large, wrinkled pit. The flesh ranges from bright yellow to white, the latter being less common and more perishable but also generally sweeter and juicier.
Peaches make excellent jams, pies and sauces. Use them in salsas or marinades for pork or toss thin slices into a green salad. For dessert, enjoy peach halves poached simple or bake them in a wide variety of home-style classics, from pies to cobblers.
Choose peaches that give slightly to gentle pressure, that emanate a flowery fragrance, and that are free of bruises and blemishes. The amount of red in a peach's skin depends on its variety and has little relation to its ripeness. Avoid any with tinges of green, however; they were picked too early and may never ripen properly. Once picked, a peach will eventually become softer and juicier but not significantly sweeter. Peaches come to market from May to October, but most varieties peak in late June to early August.
Keep peaches at room temperature in a smooth bowl until they are ripe. (The ridges of a basket can leave bruised indentations in ripening peaches.) To hasten the ripening process, place them in a paper bag with an apple or a banana. Once peaches are soft, refrigerate them in a plastic bag for 4 to 5 days.
Wash peaches just before cooking or serving. If there is a good deal of fuzz, rub the peach gently while washing. The fuzz will come right off. Like many fruits, fresh peaches will have a sweeter, fuller flavor if served at room temperature. Since the flesh of peaches discolors when exposed to air, toss cut pieces immediately with citrus juice, wine or liqueur.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion (Time-Life Books,2000).