IT TAKES a mighty tough peach to make it out of the South these days.
Rain-, hail- and frost-damaged crops have plunged total southern production from 723 million pounds in 1981 to an estimated 309 million pounds this year, according to USDA crop production estimates.
Meanwhile, conditions have been peach-perfect in the northeastern United States, with crop production rising 27 percent since 1981. The USDA estimates Yankee production to exceed the South's by 29 million pounds this year.
But peach aficionados needn't worry. There will be plenty of peaches around to celebrate the last half of National Peach Month, says Lillie Hoover, executive director of the National Peach Council. In addition to the 647 million pounds produced on the East Coast, another 440 million pounds are expected from California, and Washington State anticipates a yield of 27 million pounds. The good news for the consumer is that they'll all hit the market at the same time, driving prices down. The bad news is the peak season is expected to be a short eight weeks, and it's already begun.
Of the more than 2,000 varieties of peaches cultivated in the United States each year, clingstone and freestone are among the most popular varieties with the growers. Only an expert can tell them apart, Hoover says.
In addition, you can't judge a ripe peach by it's blush, Hoover adds. The blush indicates only outward beauty. Look for a creamy, yellow background. And smell it--the richer the peach aroma, the richer the flavor. It should be firm, yielding slightly when gently squeezed. Ripen peaches on a kitchen counter and then store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks after they're ready for eating.
Should you want to take advantage of the predicted glut, peaches preserve well, frozen or canned. The simplest way to freeze peaches is to slice them into cold water to which you have added an anti-darkening agent such as lemon juice or ascorbic acid. When ready to package, drain and add two-thirds cup of sugar to each quart of prepared fruit. Mix well and pack into rigid containers, leaving a 1-inch head space. Ball up waxed paper and put on top of peaches to hold them under the syrup.
To can peaches, remove skins and pits and slice, if desired. To prevent from darkening use an anti-darkening agent such as lemon juice or ascorbic acid. Use a thin, medium or heavy sugar syrup, according to sweetness of the fruit and family preference.
To raw pack: pack peaches in jars and cover with boiling syrup, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Remove air bubbles by running a rubber spatula between the jar and the peaches. Adjust jar lids. Process in water bath canner, 25 minutes for pints and 30 minutes for quarts. Peaches also may be canned in apple juice if it is preferred to sugar. For each 12 pounds of firm, ripe peaches use 2 1/2 cups of apple juice. First boil the peaches in hot water until just heated through and proceed as for hot pack, substituting boiling apple juice for the sugar syrup.
Peaches are beautiful resting in the bottom of a bubbly glass of champagne, or served chilled after marinating in white wine with just a sprinkling of sugar and lemon juice. And, of course, you can always pure'e some red raspberries, lay peaches over vanilla ice cream and top the peaches with the pure'e for peach melba.
There's nothing like a peach pie to highlight even the muggiest summer day. The recipe that follows is one we created because of our love for the cream cheese topping on cheesecake. The ginger near the crust is an unexpected surprise. The peach chutney recipe is one Jane Becker of Homespun created for her 18th Street store, and it's one of her best sellers. The yield is high, though, so get some nice canning jars and give chutney away next Christmas. Pork chops and peaches have been around the South for years; the recipe is here as a tribute to their crop--which will hopefully return another year. PEACH PIE (Makes a 9-inch pie) 1 pint sour cream 3 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon fresh ginger 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 9-inch baked pie shell 6 medium peaches 1/4 cup peach preserves
Combine sour cream, sugar, ginger and vanilla and pour into a 9-inch baked pie shell. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes.
Peel and slice peaches and place in two layers of concentric circles on top of pie. Place peach preserves in a small saucepan and heat until it becomes liquid, about 3 or 4 minutes. Glaze top layer of peaches with preserves. Refrigerate and serve. HOMESPUN'S PEACH CHUTNEY (Fills 2 dozen 8-ounce jars) 10 pounds peaches, peeled 2 lemons, cut up, then finely minced in food processor 2 3/4 cups vinegar 1/2 cup lime juice 5 cups sugar 6 ounces crystallized ginger 1 pound dates 1 pound raisins 2 cups english walnuts, chopped
Blanch peaches in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. Slip off skins and chop coarsely. Cook peaches, lemons, vinegar, lime juice and sugar over low heat about 2 1/2 hours. Add ginger, dates and raisins after mixture sheets (about 220 degrees on a candy thermometer, or when two drops fall from the back of a spoon side by side). Cook a few more minutes until fruit absorbs liquid. Remove from heat and add walnuts. Seal in a sterilized jar and process 10 minutes in boiling water bath. PORK CHOPS AND PEACHES (4 servings) 4 1-inch-thick pork chops 2 tablespoons soy sauce Black pepper, to taste 4 medium peaches Juice of 1/2 lemon 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup dry white wine
Rub pork chops with soy sauce. Sprinkle with black pepper according to taste and let sit for 45 minutes. Blanch peaches, peel and slice. Sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent browning.
Heat butter in a saute' pan large enough to handle chops. Add chops and brown on both sides. Lower heat and cook for 10 minutes and turn. Cook another 10 minutes. Add wine and peaches and cook 5 minutes more uncovered. Serve immediately.
Note: It is important not to overcook the peaches or they will become soggy and fall apart.