Ripe peaches make a wonderful dessert eaten out of hand -- but if they're juicy (and they will be, if they're ripe), the only safe way to do this is over a sink or with a big pile of napkins nearby. (Sadly, this has happened to me only once this year.) The challenge of peaches, then, is to capture their succulence without letting it overwhelm the eating experience.
The most distinctive feature of real peaches -- as opposed to the fruit you buy most supermarkets most of the time -- is their velvety skin, which is beloved by some people but gives others the heebie-jeebies.
If you belong to the latter group, you have two options: Either buy nectarines (virtually identical to peaches, but with smooth skin) or peel peaches before using them. Peeling is a bit of an ordeal, which is why I rarely bother, even when I'm making pie or cobbler. But sometimes -- when making jam, for instance -- you kind of have to. Fill a large pot with water, bring it to a boil, add the peaches, and let them cook for half a minute, then transfer them with a slotted spoon to a large bowl full of ice water. (Rinsing them under cold tap water is easier but less effective.) Now gently rub the skin with your fingers; it will slide off the flesh easily.
How to Ripen Peaches
The best and juiciest peaches are picked at the peak of their ripeness and come to you fragrant, yielding, and ready to eat. Unfortunately, tree-ripened peaches aren't always available (in part because they're so hard to transport without bruising), and often the only peaches available are rock hard, or nearly so. Buy these, put them in a paper bag, fold over the top a few times, and check them every now and then -- they'll soften faster this way.
Ways to Use Peaches
Almost inevitably when you have a bunch of peaches lying around, whether in a bag or on a countertop, they all ripen to the brink of going bad at the same time. (The transition from perfectly ripe to rotten can be staggeringly quick. Like faster than overnight.) The no-brainer solution (besides eating them over the sink one by one) is to make compote. Pit them -- easy if they're freestone, a little more work if they're clingstone -- chop them roughly, and scrape them and their juices from the cutting board into a saucepan. Add a little sugar and lemon juice if you like, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until they're reduced to a pulp. Homemade compote keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, but there are plenty of delicious ways to eat it: on bread, with yogurt, over ice cream, straight from the Tupperware with a spoon ....
But there are plenty of other good solutions to the problem of too many peaches, and few of them are complicated. I love serving sliced peaches in a savory salad -- with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a handful of chopped basil, they're killer. With tomatoes, they're even more killer. These two juicy, sweet-tart fruits may seem an unlikely pair, but they're beautiful together.
If you'd rather eat peaches the traditional way -- as dessert -- try halving them and poaching them in sweetened (or sweet) white wine. Though it may seem impossible, poaching makes peaches even juicier than they are raw and so tender you that you can cut into them easily with a spoon -- which makes for a much more elegant eating experience than out of hand.
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