My mom used to remind me there’s always something to be thankful for. This year, she would include a bountiful crop of southern Illinois peaches, whether you’re a peach grower or a peach lover.
If you remember back to April Fool’s Day, Mother Nature tried to play a cruel trick on the crop. Freezing temperatures hit southern Illinois on both April Fool’s Day and Good Friday. Peaches (and strawberries — blessing No. 2, Mom would say) were in full bloom. Thermometers dipped to as low as 20 degrees F. The peach and strawberry crops had to survive a tough season.
Heavy blooms saved the peach crop at Eckert’s, a family orchard in Belleville, Ill., says Angie Eckert, vice president of retail operations.
“We will have one of our biggest crops,” Eckert says. “We planted more peach acreage, and despite losing a few tender buds, the trees had plenty of other buds.”
Eckert is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to peaches. Freestone are the most popular because they are so much easier to eat. White flesh peaches are simply another variety, but they are sweeter and worth trying. It takes three years before a young peach tree can be harvested.
Eckert has seen an interest in peaches this summer, a trend she credits to the COVID-19 baking craze. “Lots more people are cooking at home,” she says. “And they’re interested in locally grown.”
Despite working with peaches, she never tires of eating them. Her favorite dessert is a peach custard pie, and her favorite nondessert, a tomato peach mozzarella salad.
“My grandmother instilled the joy of cooking in me,” Eckert says. “When I’m in the kitchen or the garden, the good memories come.”
Eckert’s, with locations in Belleville and Grafton, Ill., offers U-pick peaches or ready-for-you peaches in its farm stores.
How to handle
I like to cut a peach in half, remove the seed and grill it long enough to mark it for life and bring out the sweetness. Grilled peaches are perfect as a side to pork or cut up to add flavor and color to a salad.
Store peaches on the counter rather than the fridge. Prolonged cold temperatures cause firm peaches to become mealy and lose their flavor. On the counter, they ripen in a day or two. (You can also speed ripening by placing peaches in a paper bag and keeping them at room temperature.) You’ll know when a peach is ripe because it starts to soften. Once a peach is ripe, it can be refrigerated for five to seven days, or frozen for a cobbler when the snow is falling and you want to remember summer.
Think twice before peeling peaches. Leaving the skin on adds antioxidants and fiber — both important nutrients.
Here is Eckert’s Peach Tomato Motz recipe. They also have a great book of family recipes, “The Eckert Family Summer Cookbook,” that features this Chicken and Peach Dinner Salad With Sweet Curry Dressing. It’s a favorite of mine. I also love to make Mom’s Peach Bread recipe — a pleasant twist on the typical banana bread, with a hint of sunshine in each bite.
Mom’s Peach Bread
1½ cups sugar
½ cup margarine or butter
2¼ cups fresh peach puree
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup finely chopped pecans
To make the peach puree, wash six to eight medium-sized or three to four large peaches. Slice, leaving the skins on. Puree in a blender or food processor. Measure peach puree to equal 2¼ cups. Using a mixer, cream sugar and margarine or butter. Add eggs, beating until fluffy. Add peach puree and combined dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Stir in vanilla and nuts. Pour into two greased and floured 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees F for an hour, until a toothpick comes out clean.
Peach Tomato Motz
2 medium homegrown tomatoes, cored and sliced
½ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon to ½ tablespoon sugar
2 medium peaches, peeled, sliced from pit
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
Layer tomato slices on a rimmed platter. Salt. Top with thin slices of red onion. Sprinkle sugar across platter. Top with peach slices. Drizzle with olive oil and cider vinegar. Top with mozzarella slices. Makes 4 servings.
Chicken and Peach Dinner Salad With Sweet Curry Dressing
For the dressing
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons plus ¼ teaspoon milk
¼ teaspoon curry powder
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons honey
In a small bowl, blend sour cream and milk. Whisk in curry, then add remaining ingredients and combine well. Makes about ⅔ cup dressing. Use immediately or refrigerate and use within three days.
For the salad
Prepare the following before starting the salad ingredients:
(Can prepare up to three days ahead; cover and refrigerate).
Sweet Curry Dressing, divided
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
2 slices crisply cooked bacon, crumbled
2 large peaches peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup cooked chicken breast, diced
2 green onions, tops and bottoms, thinly sliced
3 cups romaine lettuce leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 cup kale, very thinly sliced into ribbons
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or 2 medium unpeeled tomatoes, chopped and seeded
1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
Place peaches in a bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice. Set aside. In a 3-cup bowl, mix chicken and onion with enough Sweet Curry Dressing to moisten, 2 to 3 tablespoons. Set aside. Divide all ingredients equally in two (6-cup) individual salad bowls or dinner plates. Line bowls with lettuce and kale. Arrange sliced peaches in center of lettuce. Top with a mound of chicken mixture. Arrange egg, bacon, tomato and avocado around edges. Serve with extra Sweet Curry Dressing. Makes 2 entree salads or 4 side salads.
Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with Southern Illinois University Medical School in Springfield. Send recipe ideas to her at [email protected]. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.