While the peach may be South Carolina’s state fruit and Georgia may call itself “The Peach State,” peaches originated in China. Records indicate that peaches were being cultivated in Asia 4,000 years ago with newer studies showing evidence that peaches may have been domesticated as far as 8,000 years ago. That is 6000 B.C., making peaches one of the most ancient, domesticated fruits.
Peaches originated in an area near Xian, China, which is part of the Guanzhong Plain. Guanzhong was once known as the “Nation of the Heaven” due to its rich soil and abundant harvests.
From China, peach trees made their way to Russia and Persia, or modern day Iran. Alexander the Great and his military brought the Persian peaches home to Greece, and from there the fruit spread all over Europe.
Peaches finally made their way across the Atlantic in 1539 with Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto in his voyage to claim Florida for Spain. De Soto landed in what is now known as the Tampa Bay area, unleashing razorback hogs and peaches in the new country, both of which took off. Spanish missionaries brought more peach seeds with them to the St. Augustine mission about 30 years later. The trees grow readily from seed, and peach pits are easy to preserve and transport. The indigenous people across the Southeast recognized that peaches were delicious and amazing, and they began planting orchards up and down the coast of North America.
Peach trees have “perfect flowers” containing both male and female parts, meaning they can self-fertilize, or with the help of a bee they can cross-fertilize with another peach tree. Either way, the resulting seedling will produce a completely different fruit from the original trees. The Cherokee, Lenape, Iroquois, and other indigenous tribes developed orchards from peach seedlings resulting in wildly diverse peaches. The East Coast was essentially a massive peach tree breeding project developed over hundreds of years.
In 1682 in the Carolinas, Thomas Ashe stated, “The Peach Tree in incredible numbers grows wild.” Not long after, John Banister declared, “I have seen those they call the yellow plum-peach that have been 12 or 13 inches in girth,” adding, “Peaches and Nectarines I believe to be Spontaneous ... for the Indians have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we.” A peach that is 12 to 13 inches in girth? Now that is a peach begging to become a pie!
For commercial purposes, that level of variety in peach production would be a nightmare. Some trees would bear delicious edible fruit while others would have different disease resistance and flavors. Modern orchards make use of grafting a known desired peach onto a hearty root stock to produce dependably the peaches we know and love today.
The red blush of peach skin is loaded with rich antioxidants. Eat the fruit with the skins to take advantage of the anthocyanins. But the rose color doesn’t indicate ripeness, the red develops from sun exposure. Peaches can be enjoyed at any stage of ripening from firm, soft, or anywhere in between, depending on how you want to use them and personal preferences. However, to pick out a perfect peach for eating, look for a uniform yellow background color with no green around the stem and that strong, delicious peach aroma. Minor wrinkles around the stem of the peach mean some of the water has evaporated from the peach and the juices inside will have concentrated sweetness.
Ripen your peaches at room temperature. Chilling unripe peaches prevents them ripening. When they are fully ripened, eat right away, or save in the refrigerator for several days, or slice and freeze for later use.
Try out some of the peach recipes below to take advantage of the peaches in season!
A refreshing summer soup, after-workout pick-me-up, or a cool evening cocktail, this gazpacho leaves out the tomatoes in favor of peaches. If you have lots of ripe peaches and need to use them up fast, this recipe is perfect. To make it a cocktail, puree the soup to smooth and add a little vodka.
4 cups peaches, perfectly ripe to extremely ripe
1 Persian cucumber, trimmed
¼ cup Vidalia onion, diced
½ jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed
Handful of fresh herbs such as chocolate mint and parsley
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup bold extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon peach balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon key lime balsamic vinegar
Honey to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and mix until chunky or smooth, depending on your taste. Serve cold drizzled with some olive oil.
Cook’s Note: Both balsamic vinegars are available locally at The Crescent Olive.
Peach Burrata Salad with Pecans and Spicy Honey
This salad is all about layering textures, colors, and flavors for mouth-tingling moments in every bite. Ripe juicy peaches pair naturally with bitter greens and spicy honey. The creamy burrata cheese and crunchy pecans counterpose one another in texture while the fresh basil and tangy balsamic glaze add notes of sweetness. Serves two for dinner or four as a side salad.
½ cup pecans
2 perfectly ripe peaches, sliced
1 tablespoon spicy honey, such as Trader Joe’s
4 cups arugula
4 or 5 leaves of radicchio lettuce, torn (optional)
Fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon balsamic glaze
Excellent extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Roast the pecans on a sheet pan for 7 to 10 minutes until the pecans are a shade darker, stirring halfway through. Keep a careful eye on them as they go from perfectly toasted to burnt quickly. Allow the pecans to cool.
Toss peach slices with spicy honey to coat. Arrange the arugula, torn radicchio, and basil on a platter. Arrange peaches on top. Tear burrata cheese over the salad and arrange on the lettuce. Top with pecans. Swizzle the balsamic glaze across the salad followed by a drizzling of the olive oil. Enjoy!
Cook’s Note: BelGioioso burrata cheese is excellent for this recipe. It is easy to tear and has the right balance of cream and curds inside. For the best flavor, use a balsamic glaze that is just a reduction of balsamic vinegar, no sugar, such as Nona Pia. This salad loves a high quality robust flavored olive oil; check your favorite store for recommendations.
Peaches and Brie Pizza
If you loved the salad above, shift things around a bit and make it into a pizza. Summertime in Columbia is too hot to turn on the oven. Fire up the grill instead for an easy, quick supper.
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Store-bought pizza dough
2 to 3 medium, slightly firm peaches halved, pits removed
Fresh basil leaves
Brie cheese, sliced a little more than ⅛-inch thick
Spicy honey, such as Trader Joe’s
Balsamic glaze, optional
Put the olive oil, thyme, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a small pot over low to medium heat. Heat the olive oil until small bubbles start to come up around the sides. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Follow the package instructions on the pizza dough to prepare it for cooking. Divide the dough so that it will make roughly two thin-crust, 10-inch pizzas.
Heat grill to medium. Brush peach halves with the infused olive oil. Cook for 4 minutes uncovered on each side until peaches have softened slightly and gotten nice grill marks. Resist the temptation to move the peaches around on the grill; good grill marks are a combination of clean grates and patience. Remove the peaches from the grill and allow to rest. Slice thickly.
Heat the grill to high. Stretch the dough into two roughly 10-inch pizzas on a sheet pan coated with olive oil so the dough doesn’t stick. Brush the top side with the infused olive oil and carefully place top side down on the grill. Brush the exposed side with the infused olive oil. Close the cover for 2 minutes and wait. Patience — you can do it. While you are waiting, brush the waiting pizza dough with the infused oil.
Using tongs, remove the first crust from the grill and place it cooked side up on a work surface. Brush the top with a little more infused oil. Lay 6 or 7 slices of brie on the crust. Swizzle spicy honey over the top. Place crust back on the grill, cheese side up, grill top closed for 2 minutes. Remove from the grill. Top the pizza with peach slices, a handful of arugula leaves, and some torn basil on top. Swizzle with a little more spicy honey and or some balsamic glaze. Allow to cool to safe temperature before eating.
Full-on Summer Shrimp Tacos with Peach Salsa
3 perfectly ripe peaches (about 2½ cups), pitted and diced
¾ cup red onion, finely diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice and the zest of 1 lime
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
⅛ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
½ cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice and zest of 1 lime
1 clove garlic
½ jalapeno, seeds and veins removed
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
1 pound shrimp, fresh or defrosted, peeled and deveined
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
6 to 8 soft corn or flour tortillas
Make peach salsa: Several hours before you serve the tacos, mix the first six ingredients together, peaches through cayenne, and allow the flavors to meld. Can be made a day or two ahead and kept in the refrigerator under lock and key. The salsa can disappear magically if someone else in the house discovers it. You will have more salsa than you need for the tacos.
Prepare the taco sauce: Process the next six ingredients — Greek yogurt through 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro — in a food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Refrigerate until ready to use. Can be made the day before or several hours ahead.
Assemble the tacos: Pat the shrimp dry. Toss in a bowl with salt and baking soda and allow to brine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Warm the tortillas by wrapping stacks of 4 in a clean damp kitchen towel and heating them in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time.
Remove the shrimp from the refrigerator. Toss with a swirl of olive oil until coated lightly. Saute in olive oil, tossing occasionally just until the shrimp lose their translucency and develop that fabulous pink hue.
Place as many shrimp as you want on the warm tortilla. Add some avocado and peach salsa. Drizzle on the taco sauce to taste and enjoy immediately.
Ginger Peach Brown Butter Cobbler
Cobblers as a dessert originated in the American Colonies when English and Dutch settlers adapted their European recipes to the ingredients and cooking methods at hand. The first known recipe for Peach Cobbler was published around 1881 in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher. Ms. Fisher was an African American woman who escaped slavery in Mobile, Alabama, during the Civil War and made her way to San Francisco. While she favored the pastry dough version of cobbler, the batter cobbler is more common in South Carolina.
This cobbler recipe notches up the flavor by browning the butter in the oven before pouring in the batter to infuse a nutty taste to the breading. The ginger marmalade adds some warm spice to the peaches, and the honey and maple syrup make the recipe a touch healthier by avoiding processed sugar.
4 to 6 cups sliced peaches
¼ cup ginger marmalade
¼ cup honey
10 tablespoons butter
1¾ cup white whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup half-and-half
Handful of pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the peaches, marmalade, and honey in a bowl to macerate for 30 minutes.
Put the butter in a 2-quart casserole dish. While the oven is preheating, put the casserole dish with butter in the oven to melt the butter. Cook the butter until it smells nutty and takes on patches of light tan color. It will take 10 to 15 minutes depending on how quickly your oven heats. Keep a close eye on the butter after about 10 minutes when you begin to smell the nutty odor coming from the oven. Set the casserole dish aside on top of the oven when the butter is ready.
Meanwhile, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Mix the maple syrup and half-and-half in another bowl or measuring cup. Lightly fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. There may be some lumps remaining. Pour the batter on top of the melted butter evenly around the casserole dish. Do not stir the batter and butter together. Gently place the peaches all over the batter and pour the remaining juice all over the top.
Bake at 350 F for about 1 hour until the cobbler is cooked through in the middle and is nicely browned. If the edges begin browning too quickly, cover the sides with foil and allow the middle to continue until cooked through.
Cook’s Note: For a high fruit-to-cobbler ratio, use 6 cups of peaches. For more of the browned cobbler crust and less peach, use 4 cups of peaches. If you can’t find ginger marmalade, you can substitute honey.
Roasted Peach Muffins
Occasionally you can end up with a basket of large peaches that begin rotting before they fully ripen. Or you have a basket of hard peaches and you just can’t wait to eat them. Roasting a slightly unripe peach is a great way to bring out the deep flavor and sweeten them up. Eat the roasted peaches as is — or bake them into Roasted Peach Muffins. Freeze the muffins and enjoy the peaches of summer way into fall.
8 cups diced slightly hard peaches
1 cup maple syrup, divided
2 large eggs
½ cup canola, grapeseed, or other neutral oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups white whole wheat flour, preferably King Arthur
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans or slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 400 F. In large bowl, toss peaches with 1 to 2 tablespoons of maple syrup just to coat them. Spread the peaches on a pan lined with parchment paper. Reserve any juice left in the bowl. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, turning the peaches once until they look a little shrunken and soft. Set aside to cool.
Turn the oven down to 325 F. In the bowl with the remaining peach juice, mix maple syrup, eggs, oil, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Fold in cooled peaches.
In a small bowl stir together flour, baking soda, cloves, salt, and nuts. Add flour mixture to the peach mixture and fold together with a few quick strokes. Do not overmix.
Line a muffin tin with paper liners. Fill each muffin liner almost up to the top. If you want to get a little fancy, place a thin slice of peach on top of each muffin before baking.
Bake at 325 F for 25 to 30 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Cool on rack before serving. These muffins freeze well.
This light refreshing dessert of Italian extraction is perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day. While granita is traditionally made with ingredients found in Sicily, such as lemons, oranges, mint, and even coffee, you can make it with almost any fruit. Serve your granita in a pretty martini glass garnished with mint or pretend that you are waking up in Sicily, eating cool granita with a slice of brioche for breakfast like the locals do. Add a shot of your favorite bourbon, brandy, or vodka to the mix for a boozy flavor.
4 cups perfectly ripe peaches sliced, with the peeling left on
⅓ to ½ cup agave
Squeeze of lemon or lime
Chill a glass 9x13 pan in the freezer while you cut the peaches. Put all the ingredients in the blender or Cuisinart and puree until the fruit is the consistency of a smoothie. Pour the fruit mixture into the chilled pan and pop back in the freezer. Freeze for 30 to 45 minutes until the fruit begins freezing around the edges. Using a fork, break up the frozen chunks, and stir up the mixture. Continue to freeze and stir every 45 minutes or so, breaking the peach ice into flakes until the mixture is frozen, 2-3 hours. If you make the granita a few days ahead of time, make sure to flake it up with a fork some before serving. Serve immediately, especially on a hot day.