I recently sat in the log cabin kitchen of a friend who lives in Orange County, surrounded by her peaches. Her four-year-old trees had come up trumps. Peaches would fill the freezer all winter. This makes me wish I had planted a peach tree or three when I moved into my house several years ago. You know, dig a hole, put the sapling in and keep it watered. Before you know it, a few years have gone by and voila. Since I didn't, I'll just keep buying them fresh from orchards in eastern North Carolina and the Sandhills for $15 to $20 a peck and around $30 a half bushel.
If you haven't put any away for winter yet, you still have time. The larger farmers markets and the orchards should have peaches until the end of September. In the cold months, defrosted peaches that have been peeled, tossed with lemon juice and halved or quartered before freezing are delicious gently sautéed in their natural juices and served warm after dinner as a compote (or on top of oatmeal for breakfast) and provide a local source of vitamins A and C with plenty of fiber.
Another favorite treatment sweeping the peach lovers' world is grilled peaches—and other fruits —with spicy peppers and chilies or adobo seasonings. I learned about this savory way of fixing peaches from cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and have loved pairing them with grilled chicken, pork or fish when the fruit is in season.
The most time-honored way of putting fruit in for the winter is to "conserve" it by preserving it as jam. The French have such wonderful confitures (can't you just picture them in those flip-top self-sealing preserving jars?) that I decided to look up Elizabeth David's peach marmalade in her classic French Provincial Cooking. I've eaten this marmalade in the dead of winter and felt transported to the heart of summer. Her recipe may seem difficult and imprecise for those who don't have a kitchen scale or feel skittish about boiling the sugar syrup until "it sets when tested on a plate," but it is authentic. I have adapted it here for the basic home kitchen. The small quantity it yields is manageable for a solo cook. The sunshiney jars winking from the fridge long after peach season is past cannot be praised too much for their good cheer.
For the record, marmalade, usually made with citrus, is a conserve typically less sweet than jam and jelly, and thus has to be kept in a cool, dry place once it is sealed. I keep it in the fridge, but then again, ours never quite lasts through the winter, so it doesn't take up space for all that long. Jam is sugar and chunky fruit cooked down to spreadable consistency, and jelly is fruit juices or purees thickened with sugar and/ or pectin.
3 pounds peaches (about 7–10 large or a dozen average)
3 cups sugar (about 1 1/2 pounds; this is less than Elizabeth uses and still seems like a lot, but remember, it's the preservative)
Scant 1/4 cup water
Sterilize 4 half-pint jam jars and their dome lids and rings. Running them through the dishwasher is fine, and you can use repurposed jars as long as you get new lids.
Peel peaches using a paring knife. If they are hard to peel, dip them in boiling water and remove with a slotted spoon, and let them cool until they can be handled. Then slip their skins off with your fingers or a knife tip. Halve peaches, removing the pit. Quarter, but slice no further unless you want more of a jam than a preserve. The golden fruit holds much of its shape in this form.
Lightly rinse the fruit. While it drains, bring the water and sugar to a boil, stirring to keep it from crystallizing, over medium heat in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot (I use my risotto pan). When boiling, add peaches and return to the bubbling stage, at which point turn heat to low. The syrup will thoroughly coat, but not cover, the peaches, and as the marmalade cooks down it will appear more liquid.
Simmer at the low boil stage for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool overnight (at least 8 hours), covered. After this waiting period, simmer again, uncovered, at a gentle low boil for another 30 minutes. Spoon a little of the syrup on a plate and see if it "sets" (thickens) as it cools. It should be the consistency of maple syrup. If it doesn't set, remove the fruit with a slotted spoon and place it carefully in the sterilized jam jars; do not pack too tightly.
Continue cooking syrup until it does set, checking it at 15-minute intervals. (I've not had to do it more than this extra 15 minutes, but it depends on the wateriness of the peaches.) Ladle syrup over fruit in jars and seal in hot water bath or by turning the jars, after dome lids and rings are tightly secured, upside down on a thick towel for 20 minutes so that they self-seal.
Flip the jars upright and listen for the "ping." If the seal does "take," store them in the fridge or freezer. (I've done both and the texture is not affected.)
Prepare peaches as above for marmalade and place slices in single layers on a cookie sheet with sides lined (or other long pan) with wax paper. To freeze more than one layer at a time, lay another sheaf of wax paper and repeat process for as many layers as your pan will allow. Freeze for approximately one hour until hard. Transfer the individually frozen peaches to Ziploc bags and return to the freezer immediately. Prepared this way, a handful at a time may be removed and used in smoothies, desserts and as a sautéed savory side dish all through the winter.
While summer weather continues for a while yet, we find ourselves grilling out more than we did during the dog days of July. What could be finer than a fruity cooler made with peaches from your counter or freezer? The following version can be made with fresh or frozen peaches, adjusting accordingly. Thanks to the late Dr. E.J. Cornett for teaching me variations of this recipe so many years ago on Florida's Gulf Coast, during many sunsets.
4 cups fresh or frozen peaches (peeled if fresh)
1 6-ounce can frozen limeade
6 ounces (1 limeade can) light rum
1–2 cups crushed ice (if using fresh peaches) OR 1–2 cups water (if using frozen fruit)
Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor and whirl until smooth. Serve immediately or store in freezer, but not for too long or the mixture will become rock hard. If this happens, let stand a few minutes at room temperature and blend again. Note: A food processor works really well, especially the large bowl variety, but you may find the odd piece of unblended ice you'll want to fish out.