ROELAND PARK, KANSAS — Ask me what my favorite summer fruit is, and I'll say peaches. Not those tasteless store-bought impostors, but the luscious ones found only at orchards and farmers' markets.
On the farm where I grew up, we had several gnarled old peach trees. The peaches from these trees were small, freckled, and imperfect. They had bad spots and worms here and there, but they were bursting with flavor. With a little work in the kitchen, those peaches yielded delicious desserts and jam.
Jammaking was a favorite time for my sisters and me, because there was always jam to be tasted hot from the pot on hunks of bread. The jam was thick with fruit and had a buttery quality, although there was not a speck of butter in it.
When peach shopping today, I know from experience that bigger isn't always better.
Last summer I took home some scrawny-looking peaches from a farmers' market. The farmer said there might be a worm or two, but promised the fruit would taste delicious if left to ripen for a couple of days. Since they were the only peaches available, and they smelled sweet, I bought them. True to the farmer's word, the peaches had a deep, rich flavor after ripening.
Some of the new varieties bred for shipment to supermarkets can win beauty contests but do not always have the intense flavor you will find at your local orchard. Bred to attain an appealing full color before maturity, these peaches will fool many a shopper.
Peaches purchased from local growers are more likely to be mature when picked. Pickers at Stephenson's Orchards in Kansas City, Mo., are trained to spot clues that peaches are ready.
"Our pickers look for fruit that is plump, round, and fragrant," says Ron Stephenson. "Picking peaches is not so much a physical act, as a decisionmaking process. Workers look for peaches with a yellowish background. Any with a greenish cast at the stem are left to ripen further. We will pick the same tree four or even five times over a 10-day period."
When buying peaches, sniffing and if possible sampling are the best ways to know what you are getting. You will find taste varies greatly from one variety to another. Get acquainted with the varieties grown in your area, and mark your calendar with their harvest time.
Make a trip to an orchard a summer outing. My husband and I even plan trips to my hometown so we can pick up a basket of Calhoun County peaches.
Peaches are versatile, so don't scrimp on the number you buy. You will need plenty for eating out of hand and for slicing onto your breakfast cereal. Then, of course, you will want to make them the star ingredient for pies, cobbler, shortcake, or crisps. You also might want to try your hand at making peach jam, salsa, or chutney.
At peak season, you can often pay low prices for large quantities of ripe peaches, as my sister did one year at our farmers' market. She found peaches for $3 a crate. The catch was that they were at their prime and would rot if not used immediately, so I was the grateful recipient of half a crate of the most wonderful peaches I have ever eaten. What an afternoon of "jammin' " that was!
It is a sad day when the last peach of the season is gone. Oh, for just one more Calhoun County peach.
When I was growing up, shortcake was a piping-hot drop biscuit split and served with sugared fresh peaches or berries and milk. Quick and easy assembly was no doubt a boon to the busy farm wife, and the shortcakes taste ever so good. Biscuits are excellent when made with skim milk and olive oil. Olive oil gives them a slightly crunchy texture and rich taste.
3-3/4 cups milk
4 cups peaches, pitted, peeled, and sliced
1 cup blackberries, cut in half lengthwise or left whole, depending on preference
6-1/2 teaspoons sugar, divided
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pour 3 cups of the milk into a pitcher and set aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a bowl, combine peaches, blackberries, and 6 teaspoons sugar. Set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Combine remaining 3/4 cup of the milk and the olive oil. Pour milk and oil over flour mixture and mix lightly with a rubber spatula. Mix only enough to barely combine ingredients. Scrape down sides of bowl and divide dough into 4 equal parts. Make 8 biscuits by scooping up one-half of each fourth and dropping batter onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 12 minutes.
Split biscuits horizontally (hot from the oven) and place bottom halves in desert bowls. Spoon 2/3 of sugared peaches and berries on bottom halves of biscuits. Place top half of biscuit on peaches. Spoon remaining fruit on top of each serving. Serve with the pitcher of milk. Milk is poured into dish (to side of biscuit, or over, depending on personal preference) about halfway up biscuit. Or, instead of milk, top shortcake with whipped cream. Serves 8.