Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Faint Rumbling in the Distance

Yes, that sound you hear is the first of the Great Peaches of 2008 rolling towards a farmers' market near you. Or maybe it was the stampede of otherwise-reasonable people shoving each other aside to get at them. Last Saturday, Jones brought several dozen boxes of Derby peaches to the MFM. (A reminder to all readers: start posting those peach recipes now!) You could just feel the pent-up desire as word spread that they were there; the movement toward the north end of the market was almost unconscious. Must. Have. Peaches.

Of course, I've already written about last year's traumatic frost. No need to dwell on that! Nor on the near-miss we experienced this spring. But it hardly seems real that we already have mature stonefruit at the end of May. Up north, where I hail from, we don't get scratch (except strawberries) till at least June. My trees up at Jones won't bear till later--my earliest, the Harrow Beauties, in July. But the arrival of the Derbies sent me into a bit of a panic, so on Memorial Day, up to Jones I dashed.

My friends the Harpers and the Iveses came along with their kids. Little Anna and my son Gus collected baby peaches. They plan to found a museum on our front stoop.

Gus wandered into a fairyland zone of the orchard, where my heirloom Elberta tree is.

The last time we were up there, the peaches were tiny and the difference between the frost-stunted fruits and their healthy brethren was negligible. Now the runts stand out. The rains and heat have also encouraged the vetch and the leaves and the grasses; the place glowed green against a heavy sky. On this sultry day, the whole place felt enchanted.

We even found a peach-troll.

After we visited my trees, we went over to pick some more strawberries. Not that I needed any; I'd bought 4 quarts at the MFM on Saturday. But it's getting so that I feel ill at ease if I don't have to rearrange the condiments in the fridge to make room for berries. By the time we got over there, piled-up clouds were tumbling in and spattering us occasionally with big cooling drops. Just as we filled our buckets, thunder growled us off the field and we took refuge in the lunchroom adjacent to the Jones farmstand, just in time. As rain hammered on the tin roof, we reveled in pimento-cheese sandwiches, tender white beans and cornbread, and lemonade.

It was a perfect Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Country Honk

We had an open house kind of party on New Year's Day and without reflecting too deeply on my hubris (I guess if I had, I wouldn't have committed it), I bought a country ham at Schnuck's, the Memphis grocery store with some local cred. They stock several types, but I went for Tripp's, because I've been to their place and they were really nice. Oh, and the ham is great. Melissa Petersen wrote about it for the debut issue of Edible Memphis (where you can see some of my other writing) and held a fancy tasting, slicing it prosciutto-style and serving it with melon.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for the idea that we've got a ham here that can go hock-to-hock with the Italians. But I'm also committed to mastering the local idiom if at all possible, so for my New Year's fete I decided to serve it on biscuits. When in Rome, doncha know. Except it's Memphis.

Um, you're thinking, it's May. Why are you talking about January?

The January ham experiment was a debacle, that's why. My guests were too polite to say anything, but we had too much ham left over at the end of the day to spell success. Here's why: In order for country ham to be palatable, it either needs to be sliced paper-thin, or it requires a couple days of scrubbing, soaking and simmering to remove the mold and salt and render it tender enough to yield to your teeth at roughly the same rate as the bread product into which it is tucked. Otherwise, you get an awful result. You bite into a fluffy, tender biscuit (I did get that part right, thanks to White Lily), only to find yourself in a Brazilian jujitsu match with a slab of salty gristle as crumbs fly all over yourself and the nice new acquaintance you were making till just that moment. It just doesn't make good party food unless you tenderize it.

But I didn't have a dutch oven large enough for my country ham, so I took it back to Schnuck's, where they sliced it on a bandsaw--not an elegant meat slicer that would give me something I could pair with figs--and returned my ham to me in bone-in 1/2"-thick increments. As of now, at least 12 of these slabs remain in my freezer. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I've been experimenting on them ever since.

I had no technique in January, but I can now get one of these hunks to a point of toothsomeness and desalinization that will harmonize with a biscuit. After placing it in a pan of cool water, I bring it to a bare simmer for 20 minutes or so. But once I've done this, I have several other options. My son Gus tests most of them for me, since my husband doesn't eat the furry beasts. So the other night when Josh was out, after rummaging through the fridge for something to eat, I found a bunch of broccoli rabe from Keith and Jill Forrester's stall at the MFM. Grabbing a hunk of ham, I decided to work the Tennessee-Italy connection in reverse.
4 cloves sliced garlic sauteed in olive oil, then chunky matchsticks of ham, probably a few ounces tops. (Country ham is smoky and salty even after soaking, so the best sub if you don't have any will still be prosciutto.) I like to parboil my rabe before chopping it, so I dropped it into boiling salted water for a few minutes and pulled it out with my tongs once the stalks were tender. After plunging it in cool water and chopping it, I added it to the saute and got it good and tasty. Meanwhile, I augmented the cooking water and returned it to a boil, then tossed in a half box of mini penne and a handful more salt. I reserved a little cooking water and used it to bind the sauce to the macaroni, and was all set. This didn't even want cheese.

It appears to have been a success. Note the glazed eyes, the wanton abandon with which he shovels the food into his maw.
And now, behold the noodle fiend, his passion spent. Nothing pleases a mom quite so well as a child with a full stomach and a vacant gaze. The olive-oil slick about the mouth is lagniappe.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Peachy Friends and Aunties

Once my blog was shipshape, as many of you know I emailed lots of friends and relatives to announce its debut. One of my favorite responses came from my friend Nancie McDermott (whom I met at the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Foodwriters), mistress of many idioms and genius author of Southern Cakes and Real Thai. She balks at posting comments, claiming a lack of tech savvy. I'm giving her a pass on this one, since this is such great lore. To wit:
Do you know that peaches are very auspicious and prized in Chinese cultural tradition; not sure exactly why, but the 'god' of longevity, the guy in robes with the gigantic forehead, bald, is shown with a peach in his hand and little children crawling playfully all over him. He's often pictured on boxes of dried noodles, because they are also longevity symbols, long strands mean long life and you eat noodles on your birthday.
No noodles in this picture (that I found at Pinn-Stitch), but the requisite peach and some kids.

Evidence that the dream lives on (cribbed from View Images):

After sending me on the trail of the Longevity God, Nancie dropped another tantalizing tidbit (Nancie, if you're reading this, now you know we're all counting on you): "Peach cobbler will come your way sometime this summer. Recipe that is, pretty messy to mail."

Something for us all to look forward to.

My clever and worldly Aunt Anita has also responded, with characteristic alacrity, to my call for peach recipes. I'm a lousy niece, seldom writing and often forgetting to say thanks. So I'm attempting to make amends here by for once responding to one of her gestures of kindness and inclusion. It's a start, and everyone benefits.

Anita also hesitates to comment on blogs, and so dished this family peach tradition via email. (Note to civilians: Gogo was my paternal grandfather.)
First of all, you should know that you come by this peach thing genetically. Gogo's parents evidently were big peach fans. Seems to me that 'peachy' was one of my grandfather's (AKA 'Gramp') favorite expressions. AND when I went away to summer camp at age 9, I got a postcard from him which was quite unusual. It was a piece of soft leather, with a picture of a fruit on it. It said 'You are a (picture of a fruit).' Not being a habitual fuzzy fruit eater, this fruit did not occur to me. I kept looking at the picture, and asking myself -- 'What am I supposed to be? an apple? an orange?'
So Aunt Anita didn't quite recognize the peach and still doesn't know why calling someone a peach is a high-order form of flattery. Do we really need to explain? Is not the peach, at its peak of voluptuous ripeness, the empress of all fruits?

My aunt didn't stop there, however.
The second connection is a recipe I have which I would be happy to share with you. It is for peach cake. Gogo wrote it down for me. It was one of his mother's recipes-- the ONLY recipe I have from her. In fact, I didn't know she even knew how to cook. As you know, she died shortly before your father was born." [I didn't know!] "So neither of us knew her. I think she was a bossy busy body and a nervous nelly from what I have heard. But she did have a good peach cake recipe. Actually, she called it 'peach pudding.'
Apologies to all who seek to defend my great-grandmother's reputation. However, if this peach cake recipe is any good, we'll issue a retroactive amnesty on all her nervous or bossy behavior.

We should have our first peaches here in Tennessee in a few weeks, so I can't vet this recipe yet. And so, for all to test and modernize in the next couple of months, here is Schenck's Old-School Brooklyn Peach Pudding.

PEACH PUDDING Serves 4-6 Source: Anita M.S. Schenck

Combine 1 1⁄2 T. butter, 1 1⁄2 cp powdered sugar
Add 3 beaten egg yolks
1/3 cp milk
1 1⁄2 cp flour*
Then 3 beaten egg whites
Lastly 1 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
Stir together, then fold in c. 3 sliced peaches and turn into a 1 qt baking dish
Bake in a slow oven 45-60 min.
Serve with whipped or ice cream.


(*you might want to add 1 tsp vanilla, + 1⁄4 tsp salt—AZ’s note)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Green Day

A couple of weeks ago, the strawberries made great jam but not such great snacks. By this Saturday morning, after a good dose of sun, the berries at the Farmers' Market had ripened red and sweet to the core and were perfuming the entire south end of the arcade. I staggered home with a bag full of loot: fresh goat cheese from Bonnie Blue, chicken and Berkshire pork butt from West Wind Farms, broccoli rabe from Whitton Farms, and strawberries from Jones. I already had some arugula from Wednesday's market at the Botanic Garden, so when I got home I made myself a Southern lady lunch. First, a tasty fresh-from-the market salad. Arugula tossed with olive oil and salt, then finished with a recent find, Steen's cane vinegar. Its fruity smell reminds me of sherry vinegar, but it's got amazing caramel notes, too. Perfect for a salad like this one, topped with goat cheese and strawberries. A radish sandwich on some soft white bread rounded out my plate. Mmm.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

God Bless the Child

Well, tonight's is a kwik-e post, since I spent all my allotted blog time diddling with the photo in my header. Now you're seeing some preadolescent peaches up there, and aren't they purdy? When I drove up to the orchard last week, Mr. Jones, Sr. showed me the difference between a young peach that had frost damage and one that didn't. Look closely:

Can you see the center, where the pit will form? Even though the fruity part around it looks healthy, the pit is blighted.

Now here's a baby that was higher up on the tree, and therefore above the pool of cold air that settled into this valley that night:

One thing that I learned is that these sterile fruits will ripen anyway--I think they call them nubs but I'll check because I might have made that up--and they get really super sweet. People make jam out of them. Guess what I'll be writing about in August?

Speaking of jam, I've been making jam like crazy this past week after picking strawberries at Jones and also buying them from the Windermere folks and Jones at the MFM and also (dear God stop me) buying some great Mississippi berries at Easy-Way. I'm using the recipe from Russ Parsons' How to Pick a Peach, which I'm pretty sure you'll be hearing about again. You take equal weights of cleaned, trimmed and halved berries and sugar--2 lb. each--and simmer them with a pinch of salt till the sugar is dissolved and the juice is clear, no longer. Add the juice of a lemon or an orange and let this fragrant mess sit overnight. The next day, boil it in 2-cup batches, looking each time for the berry juice to hit the sheeting stage, when it runs off a spatula in a few shiny rivulets rather than one. Or you can put a plate in the freezer for 10 minutes before and then, when you think your jam is done, drip a drop onto the plate. If it doesn't really run, your preserves are ready.

You can just stick this in jars in the fridge and give it to all your friends right away, but I went canning crazy and put it up. (Family members, pretend you didn't see this when Christmas comes!) The jam (RP points put it's technically preserves, since it doesn't have enough sugar!?!) is almost syrupy but has an amazingly bright and fresh strawberry flavor because it doesn't get cooked to kingdom come. Good on yogurt and ice cream, too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A visit to the orchard

Last year, the Easter bunny was cruel. He was cold. Because of his frosty ways, Memphians and their neighbors had to survive the summer without local peaches or blueberries.

Here’s what happened: For a few nights in early April 2007, the temperature dropped below freezing, even into the teens in some places. This would have been bad under normal circumstances, but was especially damaging because the month of March 2007 was one of the warmest on record in the region. Optimists everywhere set out their tender starts, fruit trees bloomed. It was a little dry, but no one worried. March’s breezy sunshine promised such good things.

Wicked sun. Where were you Easter morning, when all the good little children woke to the 2nd day of bitter cold? They didn’t know what their chilly egg hunts portended. A peachless summer!

Almost a year later, in March of this year, I took my son Gus and his friend David up to Jones Orchard in Millington, Tennessee. Henry Jones, grandson of the orchard's founder, took us out into the alleys of trees right near his new house. He has three--no, four!--kids of his own, 3 boys, including a pair of twins, and a baby girl. They're homeschooled, and I think the orchard is part of their classroom. Henry's boys took Gus and David way out into the orchard to explore an old graveyard out past the end of the trees.

Henry is also a colleague of mine on the board of the Memphis Farmers' Market. Jones Orchard donated dibs on the fruit from 3 trees to the MFM Silent Auction, a fundraiser for the market, which is a non-profit. When I called Henry in March to set up a visit to my trees, he seemed kind of surprised. It seems that when he's done this before, people have just come on up and claimed the equivalent of 3 trees' worth of fruit. But I wanted to see the fruit develop from the flower. The process seems so much like a pregnancy to me, that I wanted to be there at something like the moment of conception.

I guess I'm kind of voyeur. Voyeuse? Anyway, I wanted to see some fruit tree sex.

Well, as I'm sure you know, tree-on-tree love isn't so smutty, but it does involve some nice lingerie. Check out these frillies:

No bee could resist.

Henry and I picked out 3 trees. He's got gazillions on Highway 51, but he marked these ones off near his house because they're heirloomish and kind of special. At least that's how I'm looking at it. It also means he can drive off any ruffians who want to get their greedy mitts on my fruit. He set up a kind of bouncer's rope-slash-police line around the trees.

In order to ensure a steady flow of product into my peach-crazy household (and all of our friends who are in on this madness), we chose varieties that would ripen in succession. The earliest to ripen will be the Intrepids, although--and more on this in my next post--they are actually replacing some of my Flame Princes (I think that's what they're called), late ripeners that, alas, were damaged by some cold weather we had in April. Not like '07's frost, but still. Really. Anyway, the Intrepids don't mind frost so much. Next are the Harrow Beauties, which are alleged to make good jam. Finally come the Redskins in late July, and the Elbertas in early August. I'm particularly looking forward to them. Elberta is the first peach name I ever knew, I think because my grandparents used to get Elberta peach ice cream in the summer.

I'm planning to make some of my own and tell you all about it. More on chilly topix next time, when I show you some frost-damaged peach babies.

As a new blogger, I'm a little uncertain about my use of the 2d person. It makes me feel a bit like Mr. Rogers.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Pretty Flowers

I've seen peach blossoms from the road, I suppose. They don't look much different
from apple blossoms or cherry blossoms. Unless they are your peach blossoms, in which case their tender petals swell before your eyes with promise and mystery and parental anxiety. What if hordes of ravening deer come and nibble you? What if a prophylactic rain of volcanic ash shrouds your charms and prevents pollination from occurring?

What if there's a frost?

This question, of course, is not at all frivolous to the residents of the Memphis area. Last year, the dread Easter frost of '07 wiped out any and all fruit in the mid-South except for the strawberries, which I'm guessing were protected by row covers. For 2 or 3 nights in mid-April, the temperature fell into the 20s and in some places the teens. Because we'd had an unusually warm late winter and early spring, all the fruit trees and shrubs were already blooming or setting fruit. The frost killed all the apples, blueberries, plums and yes, most cruel, all the peaches.

We managed to find some down in Alabama on a road trip in early July, but day-to-day existence here in Memphis was grim last summer. No peaches and relentless heat. It was awful.

So you can imagine my emotional state when I acquired the rights to all the fruit from 3 peach trees at Jones Orchard up in Millington, TN. (I bid on this prize at the silent auction fundraiser for the Memphis Farmers' Market, and I didn't expect to win. I won.) Total, body-tingling excitement (I'll have peaches! So many peaches!). Abject, mind-numbing fear (What if we're jinxed?). Complete, overwhelming mania slipping swiftly into dejection (Pies! Ice cream! Chutney! Salsa! Cobbler! Jam! Canned peaches! More jam! More ice cream! Yogurt! Facial treatments! Peach kernel scrubs! Rotten peaches piling up in our kitchen and attracting fruit flies!).

But as I settled down the opportunity before me crystallized. I get to document a year in the life of a few peach trees, or several hundred peaches, from flower to pie plate. Along the way, I hope to try as many ways to enjoy a peach as I can find, with your help. I'm hoping you might find it in your hearts to share some of your favorite things to do with a peach. (Keep it clean, though--I've got a kid!)

This is my first post so I'm suffering from a bad case of logorrhea. I'll save it up for now. Next time, our first visit to the orchard.