A passion for peaches The appeal of peaches can be seen in lots of dishes - from cakes to cobblers. It's a banner year for the fuzzy fruit, and fans are feasting.

August 05, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff

It's a peachy time of year.

Crates of plump, juicy peaches are everywhere, from roadside stands to farmers' markets to produce trucks. No wonder.

Maryland is having a banner peach season. Area orchards are expected to yield 10.5 million pounds of peaches, almost a million pounds more than last year, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

"It's because of the warm winter," says Les Dietz, a packing-house supervisor for Baugher's Orchards in Westminster, adding that peaches ripened earlier than usual because of the weather.

That translates into an avalanche of peaches ` with pretty names like Garnet Beauty, Red Haven and Sun High. Dietz advises choosing peaches by checking the underside of the fruit for a yellow-orange tint to determine ripeness.

While yellow-flesh varieties abound, white peaches are getting their day in the sun, Dietz says. The reason for their popularity is quite simple, he says - "because they're good."

Also, firmer varieties of whites, like White Lady, are being developed, says David Hochheimer of Black Rock Orchard in Lineboro. "Years ago, they were too soft and bruised easily," he says.

No matter the hue of the insides, the aromatic fruit tastes wonderful in a variety of dishes ` from pies to cakes to main dishes. But cookbook author Damon Lee Fowler acknowledges in "Beans, Greens, and Sweet Georgia Peaches" (Broadway Books, 1998) that "The best way to eat them is still the simplest ` right out of your hand."

Fowler, a Savannah, Ga., resident who captures the essence of peaches in a delectable ice cream recipe in his book, writes, "The only place that I could go through a summer without eating a single peach is Bonaventure Cemetery ` because I'd have to be dead as a doornail."

Readers of the John Berendt best seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," will recall the cemetery from the nonfiction tale of murder, voodoo and eccentric characters that was made into a movie.

While Georgia officially is known as the Peach State, the lush fruit is not native to the South. It arrived on our shores in the 16th century by way of Spanish explorers, tracing its roots to China before making its way to Persia.

From such exotic beginnings, the peach has become as American as, well, peach cobbler. And the fruit is increasingly finding its way to the dinner plate.

In "Nicole Routhier's Fruit Cookbook" (Workman, 1996), the author teams up peaches with shrimp, chicken and pork for tantalizing combos. Routhier also recommends indulging in the sweet fruit with ricotta and mascarpone cheeses and cured meats.

And, when peaches are in their prime ` like now ` she suggests drizzling slices with liqueurs such as Grand Marnier or passion-fruit brandy and Armagnac for sheer decadence.

Peach Margaritas

Serves 2

2 cups sliced fresh peaches, or 1 package (10 ounces) frozen peaches in syrup, partially thawed

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons tequila, preferably Cuervo gold

2 tablespoons orange liqueur, preferably Triple Sec

1/3 cup confectioners' sugar

2 cups crushed ice

kosher salt, for the glass rims (optional)

2 wedges fresh peach, for garnish

Place the peaches, lime juice, tequila, liqueur and confectioners' sugar into a blender. Cover and blend at medium speed until the mixture is pureed. Gradually add the crushed ice, blending until smooth.

If desired, pour some kosher salt on a small plate. Dip the rims of 2 shallow champagne glasses in water and then in the salt.

Add the margarita and garnish each serving with a peach wedge. Serve at once with a straw.

Fresh Peach Crumb Pie With Easy No-Roll Crust

1/2 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cup sifted flour

pinch of salt

4 cups sliced fresh peaches

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Crumb together the butter, 1/2 cup sugar, flour and salt with a pastry blender, fork or fingers until well mixed.

Set aside 3/4 cup of the crumbs. Press remaining crumbs into the bottom of a 9-inch pie dish and about 3/4 inch up the sides.

Combine, in a bowl, the peaches, cornstarch, 1/2 cup sugar and lemon juice, and mix well. Arrange peach mixture in crumb shell. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle top with reserved crumbs. Continue baking 20-30 minutes more. This pie is excellent served warm.

- From Baugher's Orchards

Sauteed Chicken Breasts With Peaches

Serves 4

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces each), trimmed of excess fat

salt and freshly ground black pepper

unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade

1/4 cup heavy (or whipping) cream

2 large ripe but firm peaches (about 1 pound total), cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil or chopped fresh thyme leaves

Remove the fillets (the finger-size muscle on the underside of each breast) and set aside. Using the flat end of a meat pounder, lightly flatten each breast.

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