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I HAVE A THING ABOUT STONE FRUIT, and that thing is that I’m obsessed with it, particularly peaches.
But my approach to selecting it has typically been whatever the opposite of empirical is. Scattershot? If I bought a peach and it was good, I ate it. If I bought a peach and it was bad, I felt cheated, threw it away, decided all peaches were the devil, and stayed away from them for a while. It never really occurred to me that perhaps my peach-selection process, which I realize resembled my man-selection process, needed some serious fine tuning. I have fallen prey to many kinds of bad fruit as a result of my freewheeling attitude.
So I finally did some research, but not before spending an abnormal amount of time discussing peaches recently with my friend Wyler, who is from Columbus, Georgia, but lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. Like typical Southerners, we talked for a ridiculously long time about what constitutes a “ripe” peach, stubborn peaches that are never going to ripen, cling vs. freestones—the usual. And then we did a comparison.
Wyler removed a large peach from her refrigerator (a place I’d never store a peach) and handed it to me. “This is a day past ripe,” she said. It was cold and heavy and the skin was finely wrinkled all over. It wasn’t a peach I had much hope for, but Wyler was clearly betting otherwise.
Then we went out onto her screened in porch and lightly squeezed every single peach she’d bought from her local market, Farm411. After I’d arrived the night before, we’d put the peaches—August Ladies, like us— on her screened-in porch, where it was warm and muggy, because Wyler felt they were a day or two away from perfection. (I love peach names: Rich Lady, Elegant Lady, O’Henry, Princess Time; check out this really terrific guide.)
It seemed to me that this idea had worked, dosing them with the warm night air, but Wyler was not convinced. “Stop squeezing them so hard,” she said.
We brought a couple into the kitchen and laid them out alongside the refrigerator peach and a few I’d bought at the grocery store, after I told Wyler that I’d gotten good grocery-store peaches, and she’d raised her eyebrows at me. I’d defiantly driven to Publix, where I purchased several that looked wonderful and felt ripe when I pressed them with my thumb. Also: a big sign said they were “tree ripe.” (That would show her.)
The not entirely unexpected outcome: When I cut into my grocery-store peach, fingers crossed, it was beautiful inside but sounded like a crisp apple. I immediately knew I had bought yet another stinker. Despite the agreeable squeeze factor I’d experienced in the store, it was crunchy and dry. “A lot of people like them that way,” Wyler said, kindly. But we both agreed a lot of people are crazy.
When I cut into an August Lady, though, it was like butter. I didn’t even need to taste it to know. The fruit pulled away easily from the stone (because it was a freestone, which are usually everyone’s favorite; cling are often used for canning). And it was absolutely freaking delicious, with that tart, murky sweetness that only stone fruit produces, and a lot of juice.
We moved on to the peach from the refrigerator, which Wyler referred to as “past its prime.” But that’s not a bad thing to southerners.
“Once a peach is where you want it, you can refrigerate it to stop the ripening. And then before you eat it, you need to pull it out of the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature,” she said.
I confirmed this method of peach-extending when I was doing my peach-selection research. It explained why so many grocery store peaches are subpar. The one I’d run out and bought had been shipped clear across the country from California— according to the sticker info (which I should have checked in the store)—to a state known for its peaches, in a refrigerated truck, meaning, of course, that their ripening process had been halted.
This has all been a long way of saying: do yourself a favor and don’t buy your peaches at the grocery store (unless you know they are local) and do your homework. Or prepare to have your heart broken even though it could have been prevented.
HOW TO CHOOSE A PEACH
Smell: If a peach is odorless, it’s a loser. A peach that is ripe or beginning to ripen will smell sweet and a bit flowery.
Feel: Press it gently (don’t bruise it). Go ahead and purchase a firmer peach that gives to a bit of thumb pressure. It will continue to ripen and be ready for eating in a few days. Leave the rock-hard peaches alone. Obviously, don’t buy bruised peaches.
Color: This one is a little tricky and it varies. According to Eva Moore at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, “The notes on color are especially important with South Carolina peach varieties, which can be paler even when perfectly ripe—that’s why you look for a peach with no signs of green.” In general, a vibrant yellow background color is a better indicator than the deepness of the red and orange highlights.
Shape: Peaches get rounder as they ripen; pulled off the tree too soon, they’re going to be a bit more oblong. Nobody wants a pointy peach.
Fuzz: Don’t worry about it. It protects the peach from insects and is entirely edible. If it bothers you, peel your peaches, but I only do that if I’m freezing them in slices.
As some of you have heard, because I talk about it all the time, I’m a particular fan of South Carolina peaches. So my favorite guide on selecting peaches comes from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
I’m going to be writing a bit more on South Carolina peaches, and giving you more recipes, before we say goodbye to peach season. But for now, here are a couple of the recipes Wyler and I created from her terrific peaches and from a bag of assorted plums I’d collected, just because they were so pretty, including “cherry” plums, which I’d never had before and just loved.
And if you’re in a bigger peach mood, make sure you didn’t miss this issue, which features one of my favorite peachy salads.
*RECIPE: Peach Caprese with Black Olive and Red Onion
NOTE: You want to go heavier on the peach than mozzarella here, and use the freshest, best cheese you can find. None of that log-heavy stuff. You may need an extra peach, so have four rather than three on hand in case you need to slice another.
2 8-ounce balls fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds (you may have some left over; I think you’ll live). You do NOT want the mozzarella freezing cold. Take it out of the fridge ahead of time.
3 large, very ripe peaches, unpeeled (unless the peel freaks you out for some reason), cut in half, and again into 1/3-inch slices (you may need more; you may also slice the peaches very thinly and create the peach layer by piling them into a 1/3-inch-thick layer when building your salad)
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste (I like a lot of salt in savory dressings for fruit; start with 1/2 teaspoon and go from there)
14-16 large, pretty basil leaves
2 -3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped oil cured black olives
Slice the mozzarella and set aside. Slice the peaches into a bowl and set aside.
Make the dressing: in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, shake together the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust. Add a tablespoon or two to the bowl of peaches and toss gently.
On a medium-size platter or round plate, build your salad by layering in this order, in an attractive pattern: 1 slice of cheese, 1 or two basil leaves, peaches. You want the peaches to be the most generous ingredient.
In the center, place the olives and onions in two separate piles atop some slices of basil or cheese, so that diners may embellish their salads according to their own tastes. Note: encourage them to be generous with both; the contrast is essential to this salad. Or, you may sprinkle the entire salad with both and ignore what they think they know.
Drizzle salad with the dressing; add salt and pepper if you like. Serve with extra dressing on the side.
*RECIPE: Stone Fruit Jumble with Ginger-Lime Dressing
Serves 6 (or so)
6-8 assorted plums, pitted and cut into chunks
2 big ripe mangos, peeled and cut into chunks
A dozen or so cherries, pitted and cut in half
1/2 small jalapeño, cut in half lengthwise, seeded, and sliced thinly (or, you may finely dice it, which we decided we preferred)
1/3 cup thinly sliced or chopped mint leaves
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger (use your microplane; if you don’t have one order one. They are great for garlic, too)
a smidgen (1/2 teaspoon?) freshly grated garlic (again, microplane here; brilliant)
3 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste (I like more)
pepper to taste
Combine the fruit, jalapeño, and mint in a large bowl. Make the dressing by combining the remaining ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shaking well. Taste and adjust. Toss the fruit gently with some of the dressing, tasting until it’s the way you want it. Don’t drown it. This salad is best when it sits for an hour or so before serving, refrigerated or not.
THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Enjoy your belle salades. Since we came in late this week, we’ll have something special for paid subscribers—start thinking about which ingredients you love but don’t know how to use in a salad? Or want to see in a salad?—on Thursday rather than Wednesday. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.