You don’t need an odometer to know when you’ve driven 150 miles inland. The air gets a tiny bit drier, the terrain starts to undulate, and in the summer, the roadside pickups selling watermelons give way to fruit stands selling peaches somewhere near that mile marker.
Whether it’s the Fairfield peaches sold along Interstate 45 from Huntsville to Dallas or the Fredericksburg peaches available on the highways near the Hill Country, peaches are peaking.
Texas produces more than a million bushels of peaches, and after a disappointing season in 2013, the peach crop bounced back to make 2014 an exceptional year that one Fairfield farmer calls “the most beautiful crop we have seen in a long time.”
Early pioneer settlers brought peach trees to East Texas, and they grew so well around Fairfield that the county chose to call itself Freestone County. The Hill Country didn’t get into peaches in a big way until the 1930s, but now more than half of Texas’ peaches come from the Fredericksburg and Stonewall area, where dozens of farm stands are selling fruit. Some Hill Country varieties, including the popular O’Henry and Big Red ripen later, extending their peach season to late August.
There’s still plenty of time for the Fairfield peaches as well. A spokesman for Cooper Farms, the area’s largest producer, said in late July, “We still have plenty of peaches in Fairfield, and plan to have enough for many weeks to come still.”
Closer to home, most coastal peaches have already finished their season. Texas City pick-it-yourself farm Fruits ’n’ Such has already closed for the summer, with peaches and figs being the last of the summer crops. In local supermarkets, however, fresh peaches are still plentiful.
How to pick a ripe peach
Choosing good peaches at the store might be harder than going out to the orchard and picking them. Finding good ones is tricky enough that California writer Russ Parson titled his 2007 book “How to Pick a Peach.”
Parsons’ suggestions include smelling a peach; the more intense the smell, the riper the peach. A peach that feels heavy is likely to be juicier, he said. He also said that color is a key — an orange-colored peach with a golden background is likely to be mature.
Peach farmers have a few other tips as well. They suggest looking at the indentation where the stem was (or is) and checking for green areas. Any traces of green there means that the peach isn’t fully ripe.
It’s OK to buy peaches that aren’t yet ripe; they will soften if left at room temperature for a few days.
Farmer Ben Wenk at Three Springs Fruit Farm knows a shortcut for ripening peaches. Since fruit ripens in the presence of ethylene gas, placing a firm peach in a plastic bag with an apple or banana and sealing it will accelerate the ripening process.
Whether from the Hill Country, East Texas or the grocery store, peaches are a versatile fruit. While the freshest, juiciest peaches are best enjoyed unadorned, peaches also pair well with everything from salsa to dessert.
Country-Style Ribs with Jalapeño-peach Sauce
4 pounds country-style pork ribs
3 fresh peaches, sliced
3 tablespoons chili sauce
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons steak sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
2 jalapeño chilies, seeded and minced
In a blender or food processor, place peaches, chili sauce, sugar, vinegar, steak sauce, oil, cumin, salt and pepper and blend until smooth.
Pour the Peach Sauce into a medium saucepan, stir in jalapeño and heat through, stirring, over low heat.
Prepare a banked medium-hot fire in kettle-style grill. Grill ribs over indirect heat for 2 hours, brushing with the Peach Sauce several times during last 30 minutes of grilling.
Bring the remaining sauce to a boil, boil 2 minutes and serve on side with ribs.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy National Pork Council)
Peach Upside-down cake
3 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted
3⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 or 4 thickly sliced peeled peaches
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
11⁄2 cups flour
11⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a cast-iron skillet or cake pan. Add the brown sugar and cook while stirring until the sugar is melted and begins to bubble.
Remove from heat and let cool. Once cool, arrange the fruit in a pinwheel design. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the 8 tablespoons of butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the vanilla, eggs, one at a time, until smooth.
Whisk or sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Stir in half of the flour mixture, then the milk, then the remaining dry ingredients. Do not overmix. Stir just until the flour is barely incorporated into the batter.
Spread the batter over the fruit and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the pan and thickness of the batter. The cake is ready when it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the center feels just set.
Remove from the oven and cool about 20 minutes then place a cake plate on top and flip the cake out on to the plate wearing oven mitts, taking care, as there might be some hot caramel that might escape.
(SOURCE: Recipe adapted from “Ready for Dessert,” by David Lebovitz)
1 large fresh peach, chopped
2 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette dressing
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon red onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon jalapeño peppers, finely chopped seeded
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Chill until serving time.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Kraft Foods)