Thursday, 30 June 2016

Picking peaches

Baked peaches with Lemon Verbena

As usual, I couldn't resist the first peaches.  Too pale, too firm, too early.  Just like every year I succumbed to the downy cheeks of those seductive under-ripe fruits which bring the promise of summer.  Jane Grigson’s advice on choosing peaches holds true - to refuse those that are bruised or soft, for “softness indicates woolliness and cannot be redeemed, as hardness sometimes can, by cooking."

Many cuisines have a tradition of macerating peaches in wine.  Most prefer yellow-fleshed fruits for this treatment.  The Spanish have Melocotones al vino.  In Claudia Rodin's The Food of Spain she tells us “The people of Aragon have been growing a special type of sweet yellow-fleshed peach, the melocotón de Calanda, since medieval times", skinning and macerating them in sweet wine;  whereas in France, they are commonly sliced straight into a glass of red or white wine or champagne - with a sprinkling of sugar if the fruit is under-ripe;  In Italy, Pesche al Vino involves pouring boiling water over the fruit, skinning, slicing and immersing them in red wine, also adding sugar if the peaches are not sweet enough. 

Warmth and sweetness can be enough to rescue an unripe peach - cut in half, sprinkle with sugar and pop under the grill - but sometimes a little extra is called for.  The flavour of peach pairs well with berries, particularly the raspberry (remember Peach Melba), and appreciates the flavours of vanilla, almond, rose, clove or bay.

Baked Peaches with Maple Syrup and Vanilla is a delicious Nigel Slater suggestion from his book Tender V. II; Jane Grigson in her invaluable Fruit Book offers up Pêches Chinoise - peaches cooked in the syrup from a jar of preserved ginger and served with chopped ginger, walnuts or almonds;  from Honey & Co The Baking Book comes Peach Cakes flavoured with vanilla, fennel and the almond-like spice mahleb (made from the kernel of the St Lucie cherry) which works deliciously.

Lemon Verbena

If I want a quick way of perking up peaches I poach them in syrup - or rather I bake them as they hold their shape much better that way.  I love the sherbet lemon character of lemon verbena with peaches, or sometimes I add the peppery spice of basil leaves instead.  So this is my way with those under-ripe peaches you just couldn’t resist. It will bring out the colour and flavour and add a little extra "something".  Personally I don't remove the skins as they improve the colour of the syrup, and what's wrong with the skins anyway?

Baked peaches (or nectarines) with lemon verbena
(serves 4)

4 Unripe round or flat peaches
100ml water + the same volume of caster sugar (you can reduce the sugar a little if you wish)
4 leaves of tender fresh lemon verbena (or 2-3 basil leaves)
A handful of raspberries for each plate (optional)

Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/Gas 4.  Lightly butter an ovenproof dish.  
Cut the peaches in half and remove the stones.  Place them cut-side up in the dish.
Dissolve the sugar in the water over a medium heat and add the lemon verbena leaves.  Bring to the boil and cook for 2 minutes.  Pour the contents of the pan over the cut peaches.  Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the peaches.  If the fruits are particularly hard, cover with foil to speed up cooking.  Baste the peaches a couple of times during cooking and, if they are not softening, turn them a couple of times in the syrup.  

Serve with the cooking juices spooned over and, maybe, a fresh leaf of verbena.  If you have raspberries, add a few to each plate.  And where there are peaches, there should be cream.