During a recent visit to Terhune Orchards in Princeton, I unexpectedly found myself in the passenger seat of a golf cart, whizzing between seemingly endless rows of peach trees. Behind the wheel, farm owner Pam Mount drove through the narrow rows, and shared 40 years worth of insight about growing and cooking peaches. After surveying the small, fuzzy green fruits, she assured me that they would soon fatten and turn hues of gold and orange as they ripen on the trees.
Peaches aren’t much to look at early in their growing season, but in the last two weeks before harvest, they grow by leaps and bounds. Mount said one or two days can make a huge difference in the taste and size of peaches, so the orchard is monitored closely.
After taking a peek at the baby peaches, we headed back to the farm store. Just inside the door, there is a whiteboard listing all 28 peach varieties grown at Terhune, and the date their harvest started for the last few years. The neatly drawn column for 2015 remained empty, as the first harvest of this season drew closer.
When planning a farm visit for peach picking, having some background about peach varieties always helps. Peaches are either semi-freestone, meaning the pit comes away from the flesh with a bit of effort, or freestone, in which the pit easily pops out when the peach is cut in half. So at your next farmer’s market, don’t be shy; ask about what types of peaches are available that day, and if they are best for your planned recipes.
Some farms in South Jersey begin harvesting early varieties in late June. At Terhune Orchards, peach season kicks off by mid-July with Red Haven, a semi-freestone variety which are perfect for eating fresh. Delicate, fragrant white peaches are also best enjoyed simply sliced, or out of hand. Indeed, summer’s pleasures are abundant. Biting into a perfectly ripe, vibrant yellow peach, still warm from the sun, is high on my bucket list for the season.
Once you’ve calmed down from peach-induced bliss and clean up the peach juice running down your wrists, start thinking about preserving some for future use. By August, you will find more varieties that are freestone, which make faster work when putting them up.
“Almost all of the varieties in August are fantastic, but the Loring peach is the all-time favorite of people who can or freeze,” Mount said. She runs a very popular, free canning and freezing class during the first weekend of August. Putting peaches up can be time consuming and steamy, given the time needed for blanching the fruit to peel it easily or putting jars into the canning pot, so any shortcuts she can offer are welcome for all to learn.
SAVE THE DATE
Register online for Mount’s class: August 1, 2015, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Mount shared a brilliant peach-pie-making tip: “The trouble with peaches is that you freeze them in a little container and you have all this juice when they defrost,” she said. “People either don’t freeze enough to make their recipe or have too much. What I suggest is for people to make their peach pie recipe filling with the sugar and mix it all up. Don’t do the pastry. Freeze the fruit in the pie tin overnight. Take it out of the pan and put it in a freezer bag. Then in February when you are ready for pie, make the pastry and plop in the peach filling that is the right size and shape and cook them frozen.”
Mount also suggests using tapioca flour as a thickener, rather than cornstarch or all-purpose flour. It is tasteless, doesn’t cloud the color of the fruit’s juices, and doesn’t get gummy when cooked.
If you would rather freeze sliced peaches, be sure to choose a very ripe freestone variety. Dip the peaches into boiling water for a few seconds to loosen the skin, and then transfer to an ice bath. Once cooled, they are easy to peel, remove the pit and slice. To maintain the best color when freezing, Mount likes to dissolve ¼ teaspoon ascorbic acid in ½ cup cold water before pouring the mixture over 4 peaches that are sliced and sprinkled with sugar.
For canned peach halves, Mount peels them using the same method and then packs quart jars with the fruit topped off with a sugar syrup. She then processes them for 30 minutes in a hot water bath canner. Once you learn this method, you may never want to buy canned fruit again.
Jersey Fresh peaches will be widely available from mid-July to early September at farm stores, roadside stands, farmers markets, and supermarkets. Find a location near you on the Jersey Fresh website. Always call a pick-your-own farm the day you plan to visit to be sure they are picking. Learn more about peaches grown in New Jersey and events all over the state for peach festivals, parties, and pie-making competitions at www.jerseypeaches.com or the Jersey Peaches Facebook page.