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Monday, July 16, 2007

Rambling 'Round

I think I've found my calling.

Frankly, the idea of pickling peaches sounded weird. However, I was unprepared for how good these weird sounding peaches actually were! While I didn't grow up eating pickled peaches, I became interested when I started to learn more about Southern cuisine and saw several mentions of them - along with recipes.

I have to say: it's highly unusual for me to can sweet things, or even can at all. I've canned cucumber pickles and sauerkraut, but never really sweet things like jam, preserves or fruit packed in syrup. However, after my first try with pickled peaches, I think I may be on to something.

If you are preserving or pickling peaches, you better do so while they last. Right now we're in full swing of the season and peaches can be found in abundant supply at low, low prices - especially here in California, where we actually grow more peaches than the state of Georgia does.

For my first attempt at pickling peaches, I used the common round, yellow-flesh, clingstone variety you can find almost anywhere. While these peaches are visually more appealing, I decided the second time around to use the white-flesh Saturn or Donut peach one can find in Asian markets, mostly since they are flat and can fit more easily into a quart jar without having to cut in half.

Right now, you can find these peaches from anywhere between 79 cents to one dollar per pound – if you know where to look. It should be noted that the peach is native to China and didn't really become popularized in America until the late 19th century.

It should also be noted that I would like to now burst into song:

"The peach trees they are loaded,
The limbs are bending down.
I pick 'em all day for a dollar, boys
As I go ramblin' 'round."
As I go rambling 'round."

"Sometimes the fruit gets rotten,
Falls down on the ground,
There's a hungry mouth for every peach
As I go rambling 'round, boys
As I go rambling 'round."

That was two verses from an excellent Woody Guthrie song written from the perspective of a migrant farmworker. Peaches are a big business in California and the work of harvesting them is grueling, hard work.

Bruce worked picking peaches one summer when he was in high school. First, you had to be at work in the field by 5AM in order to work during the coolest part of the day (in the Central Valley it can get well above 100 on an average summer day). Next, you have to wear layers upon layers of clothing, not because of the weather, but because the peach fuzz - if it were to get on your skin - would cause such irritation it would drive you insane.

We can never overstate the sheer endurance and strength it must take for farm workers to do their job, day in and day out. Every time I eat a strawberry, a peach, or an apple, I try to think of the agricultural worker and thank them for doing the tough work so I don’t have to.

Not that canning peaches is a piece of cake, mind you.

It’s time consuming and requires that you concentrate on the work at hand, but thankfully it’s easy enough that anyone can do it. First you start off with the peaches.

By the way, the recipe I used for my pickled peaches came from the Lee Bros Southern Cookbook, which I recommend not only for this recipe but for so many essential down-home recipes either in their pure form or, to the tsk-tsk of a few, kicked up a notch. So they put cream cheese in their pimento cheese spread – big deal!

I started with 10 pounds of washed Donut peaches and they filled 5 quart jars. By the way, you want to make sure your canning jars and lids have all been washed in hot, soapy water and thoroughly dried before you begin. That way they are ready to go when you are.

We begin by skinning our washed and cleaned peaches in a pot of boiling water. By the way, you want your peaches to be uniformly firm and without a lot of soft spots. You can skin a group of peaches all at once in a large pot, but I prefer to work with one peach at a time. If I had help and we were doing a lot, I’d do multiple peaches in boiling water at once.

When the water is at full boil, dunk the peach (or peaches) in and boil for 1 minute. Have ready a bowl of ice water and a large enough container to hold the skinned peaches in when you’re done. After 1 minute in boiling water, dunk the peach in the ice water and then remove. The skin should slide off, but if it doesn’t go ahead and use a knife to peel the rest of the skin off. Reserve the skinned peach to a container.

By the way the peaches I used didn’t brown after they had been skinned and sat a while, but if you are worried I’ve heard you can add salt to the boiling water bath and that minimizes the browning on peaches (or you could rub them in a mixture of lemon juice and water).

Once you’ve skinned your peaches, start the syrup in a large pot. The syrup consists of 6 pounds of sugar, 6 cups of apple cider vinegar, 3 tablespoons of cloves, 3 tablespoon of chopped crystallized ginger, and 6 – 10 sticks of cinnamon. By the way, you’ll have plenty of syrup left over after canning your peaches. If you want, you could save it and use later in sparkling water drinks – like you would using Torani syrup.

Stir the syrup ingredients together and turn the burner up to medium-high. When the syrup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and continue to cook on a low boil for 20 minutes.

Next, add peaches in batches large enough to just fill the surface of the pot and cook for 8 minutes over medium-high, making sure to roll them so that they cook evenly on all sides. When they are done, reserve them to the quart jars you will use to can them in. Grab some of the cinnamon sticks and put those in the jars as well.

While you are cooking the peaches, you will notice that the peaches you have reserved in the jars have sunk down and have released some of their juice. Keep that in mind since you will be able to add more peaches to the jars. Try to minimize free space in the jar as much as you can while keeping the peaches whole and not completely smashed down. You may also cut some of the peaches in half to fit more in.

Once you have filled the jars, ladle in the syrup and cover – leaving 1/2 inch of air space at the top. Wipe the edges of the jars with a clean, damp papertowel, then seal and screw on the rings, but do not tighten. In a large enough pot that has very hot (but not boiling water) in it, carefully add the jars of peaches and then cover with more water so that there's at least a half-inch to an inch of water above the top of the jars. Bring this to a boil (it could take some time). Once it is boiling, be careful to watch that it doesn't over boil and process for 15 minutes.

After time's up, remove the jars with a jar-lifter by pulling straight up and gripping the middle of the jar rather than the top. Always lift straight up and down. Let the jars cool on wire racks and carefully wipe off the water from the tops of the jars.

As you'll see, if you haven't really packed the jar with fruit you'll have a big gap at the bottom that's just syrup while all of the fruit is sucked up near the top. You'll have that gap anyway, but if you've done a good job packing the fruit in, it shouldn't be too wide.

After the jars are cooled, you can make labels for them – or not. What I did was I took leftover paper fake money Bruce bought in Chinatown a long time ago and, using a spare lid, traced around the lid and cut out the shape.

Then I unscrewed the rings, placed the round pieces of paper on the lid, and then screwed back down the rings. Pretty cool, heh?!

This is about as fancy as I get, y'all.



Blogger Cali said...

Except for the ginger, those are exactly like my grandmother's! Well, she used standard yellow cling peaches that were purchased by the wooden "lug" box, donut peaches weren't an option at that time.

I always thought it was a little bit strange that she canned her own peaches when the largest peach cannery in the world (at that time) was three blocks down the street. But not the pickled peaches! Those are special and you can't get them anywhere-- you have to MAKE them! Maybe I will make them this year. I haven't had a pickled peach in 30 years or more, but I can still remember exactly how they taste.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Gently pricking the peach skin in a few places with a paring knife before you drop them into the water really helps with the skin removal process later. I like to add a little rock salt to the ice water. Seems to help with skin removal.

Mind you, I'm usually skinning tomatoes. But, peaches should behave more or less the same.

4:19 PM  

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