Peaches are at their best right now. To buy them, look for unblemished peaches with a creamy background colour and a peachy smell. The deeper and more uniform the colour, white, peachy or red, the riper the peach. The red blush indicates variety not ripeness. Peaches should be firm to the touch and have a smooth unwrinkled skin. Discard soft, bruised peaches, they may be stringy. Store peaches, refrigerated, for up to a week. Place unripe peaches on the kitchen counter away from the sun, and refrigerate as they ripen.
There are two basic types of peaches: with clingstone, the peach flesh adheres to the pit. These are used for canning and processing, but you can eat them. With freestone, the flesh separates easily from the pit making them the perfect peach for eating and cooking. A crossbreed variety, the semi-freestone, usually the first available eating peach in July, can be used for both canning and eating. The newest variety here is doughnut peaches. These squat little beauties are an ancient Chinese fruit, now grown here and are not genetically modified. They are usually sweet, with almond overtones and highly prized.
Yellow peaches have that classic peachy flavour and are more acidic, but white peaches, because they are lower in acid, taste sweet even if they are not ripe.
The best way to eat a peach? Over the sink. To skin them for baking, bring a pot of water to boil, add peaches and boil for 30 seconds. Drain, rinse with cold water and the skins should slip off. Toss peaches with lemon juice to prevent browning.
One can’t talk about peaches without mentioning plums, an underrated fruit. For eating – and especially for cooking – plums are stars. There are many different varieties ranging in texture and taste from yielding and sweet to firm and juicy. They come in a rainbow of colours from yellow to black. They make the best pies and cakes, sweet and savoury sauces and are an important salad ingredient.
Look for plums that have good colour and are heavy in the hand. Discard any that have blemishes or feel soft. Keep them refrigerated.
Large firm black plums are terrific for pies and crisps, savoury sauces and chutneys or as garnish for dishes. Red plums are best for eating out of hand. Yellow plums also make a good sauce when you want a sunshine colour on your plate and are frequently used for jam. All varieties are good for eating.
My favourite plums for cooking are prune plums (sometimes called blue plums to remove that medicinal undertone that prunes have). Not a great plum for eating out of hand, but once cooked it is exceptional. They make a lovely, slightly tart pie, and a perfect chutney to serve with duck. Damson plums are a very tart fruit originating from the Middle East. They are best in jam. Plums pair well with cinnamon, vanilla, orange zest, star anise and cardamom.
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