08 September 2007
Somewhere at the height of summer, as we feasted ourselves on another dinner of corn, butter beans, and tomatoes, it was pointed out that we could preserve some of these seasonal delights for enjoyment later in the year. I read recently that because of our local drought, the corn season may end much earlier than usual, and just the thought of any summer bounty being cut short had led me straight to the market to stock up while the getting was still good. We could, it was noted, par-boil the corn and freeze it, or make tomato sauce for the coming dark months of winter. However when it comes to produce, I have the equivalent of in-season ADD. I like to enjoy fruits and vegetables in their immediacy, and after all, there will be winter squash and chestnuts, and come January persimmons will beckon from street-side stands.
However, there was one preserve I could wrap my head around, and that was the idea of preserved peaches, preferably spiked with a nice dose of bourbon. These are my version of that classic Southern concoction known as pickled peaches. If you are skeptical of the idea of a sweet pickle, allow me to explain- in the South, "pickled" is often used to refer to any preserved item, both sweet and savory. Therefore, pickled peaches and pickled watermelon rind are sweet syruppy preserves, though hinted with a touch of tangy-ness. Jars of these peaches are made every summer, then packed away until the winter holidays, when they are pulled out to be served alongside the Thanksgiving turkey and the holiday roast. The peaches' thick sweet syrup is flavored with just enough tangy vinegar to be served alongside an entree, although I think the sweet-sour mix is truly heavenly when paired with vanilla ice cream.
Although I'm not one for preserving, I do know how to can things, and I was enamoured with the idea of making bourbon-preserved peaches, so I headed to the market. For these peaches, you want small under-ripe fruit (small so that they fit whole into the jar, under-ripe so that they don't get too soft). I asked the farmer about smaller peaches, and he let me climb up into the back of his truck and pick out some smaller peaches, and because they were under-ripe he gave them to me for a steal, only $6 for the whole bunch. There's no getting around the fact that these are a bit labor intensive- you've got to poach and peel the peaches, then make the syrup; however, I don't think this is an unpleasant way to spend an afternoon, and after only two hours of labor I had nearly four gorgeous quarts of peaches. The canning process in itself is very short and simple, although if you choose not to can them they still last for four weeks in the fridge.
I add the bourbon in two different places- in the first part the alcohol is cooked off, but a little bit is added at the end of the syrup-making to give the peaches a bit of piquancy. I should say that if bourbon is not to your taste, you can omit it or use another alcohol like brandy or amaretto. The peaches will soften and intensify as they sit, but I will say that we consumed one jar immediately, and they were the most divine version of summer peaches I've ever had, the syrup bathing a creamy homemade brown-sugar-sour-cream sherbert. And although I canned them with the intent of saving them for the doldrums of winter, somehow letting the peaches sit that long just seems too much to bear. It's only the first week of September, but I'm already opening the second jar of peaches and reaching for the ice cream. I may regret it come winter, but by then there will be other produce to enjoy.
These sweet-tart fruits are a spiked cousin of Southern pickled peaches. They are traditionally served alongside roast meats, but their slightly sour note and thick syrup means they are heavenly with vanilla ice cream. The same preparation can be applied using apricots and brandy, and Amaretto also works nicely. If you abstain from alcohol, omit it and increase the vinegar to 2 cups.
6 lbs small, firm peaches
2 lbs (4 cups) sugar
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup bourbon, divided use
4 cinnamon sticks
1 pinch cloves
1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger
4 wide-mouth quart canning jars
1. Before you begin, assess the size of your peaches to see how many you'll want to cut in half to fit snuggly into the jars. Set a very large pot of water to boil. Sanitize the jars by immersing them and their lids in the boiling water for a minute, remove with tongs and set aside. Leave the water boiling, and prepare a bowl full of ice water.
2. Blanch the peaches. Submerge a few peaches in the boiling water, let boil for 1-2 minutes, then immediately transfer the peaches to the ice water. Let the peaches sit in the ice water for a minute, then remove and immediately peel the skin from the peaches and place in a clean bowl. Repeat until all the peaches are peeled. Working over the bowl to catch any juices, halve and pit as many peaches as necessary (I usually halve about half the peaches).
3. Drain the pot, rinse it, and return it to the stove. Combine sugar, vinegar, 1/2 cup of bourbon, 1 cinnamon stick broken in half, the cloves and ginger. Add any juice from the bowl of peaches. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn the heat down and let the syrup simmer for about 15-20 minutes, until the syrup is concentrated and slightly thickened (the syrup will be slightly golden, but it should not darken in color).
4. Add about one third of the peaches to syrup, raise the heat slightly, and poach for about six minutes, turning peaches to coat. (It will seem like you don't have enough syrup, don't worry). Transfer peaches to a jar, packing the whole peaches with the peach halves as closely as possible. Continue poaching the peaches and filling the jars in two more batches. (I usually end up with three full jars plus a half jar, depending on the size of the peaches). Turn the heat off the syrup, let cool slightly, and then stir in the remaining 1/2 cup bourbon. Carefully ladle the syrup into the jars, filling to within 1/2 inch of the rim. Insert a cinnamon stick into each jar. Run a knife or small spatula on the inside of the jars to release any air bubbles, wipe the rims of the jars clean. Place the lids on the jar and screw on caps so that they are finger-tight.
5. If you are canning the jars, prepare a large bot of boiling water again. Submerge the closed cans in the boiling water for 15 minutes. Remove with tongs or rubber mitts, set aside the jars to cool to room temperature. If you don't want to process the jars, the peaches will keep for four weeks in the refrigerator.