Thursday, August 26, 2010

Relishing Bad Peaches, or Memories I Wish I Didn't Have

They say eating peaches straight from the tree is a magical experience. They lied.

The peach trees in my life have been filled with peaches and disappointment in equal measure. When I was growing up, one of our neighbors was blessed with a runty but prolific peach tree. It was barely six feet tall, but managed to produce hundreds of small yellow peaches every summer.

And every summer the same thing happened. Our neighbor Mrs. Yung would tell us that if the birds didn’t eat them, she was going to have her gardener pick and dump those peaches. They’d tried to eat them before, she’d tell us, and they were terrible—all bitter and mealy.

And every year, Mrs. Yung’s eighty-something mother-in-law would sneak over to our house with a big paper bag full of peaches. She had lived through wartime in China and couldn’t bear to see food wasted.

One year I was the one who opened the door when she made the drop. She didn’t speak English and knew I didn’t speak much Cantonese, so she simply pushed the bag into my hands and raised an index finger to her lips. I knew the secret wasn’t one to keep from my parents, but from her daughter-in-law.

And bless Grandma Yung’s heart, but those peaches were downright wretched.

I told this story many years later to some colleagues at California State University, Fresno, where I’d landed my first full-time teaching gig after grad school.

“Oh, I can tell you why those peaches were so bad,” one of them said. “It’s because they weren’t culled. If you grow stone fruit, you have to cull the fruit as they grow. Otherwise the tree works too hard and none of the fruit can produce enough sugar. Tell your old neighbors they have to leave only a few peaches on each branch. That way, they’ll have a smaller number of good peaches rather than a bunch of bad ones.”

Fresno is in the heart of California’s farming belt, in an area known for its copious crops of stone fruit. It is also known for urban sprawl and an utter disdain for zoning restrictions, so my new-ish condo complex was right across the street from a working peach orchard. In early spring, the orchard burst into bloom, and humongous clouds of pink-and-white flowers greeted me on my run every morning. By late spring, the blossoms fell to the ground like snowdrifts and were replaced by tiny green fruit. On my morning runs, I’d see dozens of workers on ladders working intently on the trees, no doubt culling the majority of the fruit to ensure the sweetness of the rest.

And one day in mid-summer, a large sign appeared by the normally-chained-off driveway leading into the heart of the orchard: FRESH PEACHES FOR SALE—OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.


My husband and I wandered down the tree-shaded driveway and bought a purple paper bag holding eight big peaches. They were still rock-hard, but we were sure they’d be great in a few days. We decided to research peach pie recipes while waiting for them to ripen.

We waited. And waited. Then some of the peaches went from rock-hard to flaccid and shriveled. I peeled and sliced them, and made my pie. Meh. Sour and boring and just...meh.

And don’t get me started on the last batch of peaches I bought, just last week. Georgia peaches, no less.

“These are awful,” my husband said after tasting one. “People around here don’t know anything about peaches.”

“They’re Georgia peaches. Georgia is supposed to be famous for peaches.”

“Well, I bet they send all the bad ones to Florida.”

So we were stuck again with another batch of mediocre peaches. Like Grandma Yung, I hate wasting food, even lame and disappointing food, so I had to think of a way to make those peaches palatable.

I cut up two of them and put them in a coffee cake with good results. When raw, the peaches were dry and mealy, but baking brought out what little juice they had and improved their texture. Surrounding them with oodles of butter and cinnamon sugar didn’t hurt, either.

But what to do with the rest of them? Whatever I did would have to mitigate all the flaws of my bad peaches – lack of sweetness and flavor, miserable mealy texture, and plain old ugliness – while bringing out whatever good qualities they had. I knew whatever I came up with would unlikely be a recipe for the ages. Dishes made from mediocre ingredients rarely are. My goal was an honorable rescue mission, rather like helping a D student gain the skills needed to earn a B.

My coffee cake showed that cooking bad peaches improves them, so that would be my first strategy. Mushy, mealy peaches don’t hold their shape well when cut up and cooked (or when cut-up and left raw, for that matter), so I needed a preparation in which the shape of the peach pieces wouldn’t matter. I also needed something that would add flavor and texture to the mushy peach pieces, and that would compensate for – or exploit – their lack of sweetness and peachy aroma.

I decided upon a peach-based relish: the peaches would form a sunny and fruity-enough base for a tangy, spiced-up condiment. Minced onions and red bell pepper add savory notes and texture. Sexiness and spice come from an only-in-Florida specialty: datil chiles, which are grown commercially only in the area immediately surrounding St. Augustine. Datils are close relatives to habaneros and are just as hot – but a bit sweeter. Like habaneros, datils have a fruity aroma (which helped bring out what little my boring peaches had) and a lingering, smoldering heat that tends to sneak up on you. It’s just what you need to breathe a little life into dull peaches.

Peach Rescue Relish

2 cups peeled and chopped fresh peaches

¼ cup finely diced red onion

¼ cup finely diced red bell pepper

1/8 cup finely diced celery

1 seeded and finely chopped datil or habanero chile (use half if you are averse to heat!)

2 tablespoons canola or other neutrally flavored cooking oil

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1-2 tablespoons brown sugar

½-1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1. Heat a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the oil, then add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and chile. Sauté, stirring, until the vegetables have softened and become translucent.

2. Add the peaches and allspice to the vegetables. Stir to combine. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, until the peaches give off their juice and start to dissolve. Add water if they start to stick to the pan.

3. Taste the mixture and add enough sugar and vinegar to give a good balance of sweetness and tanginess. (“Good” can mean anything you want it to, so this can go as sweet or as tart as you like.)

4. Store the relish covered in the refrigerator. Serve with ham, grilled chicken, or with good bread and cheese.

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