Welcome to the “peach pit.” No, not the iconic diner of TV’s Beverly Hills 90210, but my kitchen – so named at this time of year for the hundreds of cooked peaches destined for the freezer.
Peaches are the last in, synonymous with the countdown to summer’s finale. Since I have already put up a bonanza of fruit for next winter, the peaches (sans pits) are squeezed into the last parking spots between the blueberries, cherries, strawberries and rhubarb.
My way of preserving fresh fruit does not involve cans or jars: too much of a production, and with my luck, I’d risk botulism. But the bliss of having so many wonderful farmers markets in and around Montreal and elsewhere – Atwater and Jean Talon are my go-to sources—makes it almost a sin not to stash away some of summer’s bounty. Indeed, one of our first purchases on returning to Montreal was one of those small freezers that purrs away happily in a corner of the basement.
Let’s begin with the easy: blueberries.
Dump a pint box of blues in a bowl, discard any mushy or mouldy ones and place the rest in a good-quality freezer bag. Wash under warm water by the handful only when ready to use. To eat: zap gently in the microwave for 30 seconds to a minute in a little water in a microwave-safe bowl, longer if necessary but make sure the fruit doesn’t get hot. Warmed this way, the berries stay juicy and are great alone, with bananas or paired with a melon like honeydew or cantaloupe.
For baking: don’t defrost, but blot well with a paper towel after washing. Toss with a smidgen of flour to sop up excess moisture. Frozen berries burst with flavour during baking.
Strawberries: Fresh strawberries are a joy ride. Best time to buy is at the strawberry festival in late June. We grab an early morning parking spot near the market, then head over to our favourite vendor to snap up at least two flats (12 pints to a flat) of these succulent red jewels.
To conserve: hull berries, slicing off a thin piece from the top where the stem was. Again, discard any with mould (soft berries are OK). Place whole berries by the pintful in a colander (buy one of those cute small ones for easy handling), and wash very well under warm, then cool running water. Drain and dump in a big bowl. When you’ve got several pints ready this way, start slicing the berries (or leave whole if time-pressed), sprinkle on a little sugar if necessary and spoon into one-quart freezer bags. Press out any air and zip up, leaving at least an inch or two of room at the top for expansion in the freezer.
To enjoy: run a bag of frozen strawberries under warm water for a minute, then place the closed bag in a deep, roomy bowl to defrost in the fridge. (Or while still partially frozen, empty berries into a bowl and zap gently in the microwave.)
Peaches: All right, I admit this is labour-intensive and you need to set aside a good couple of hours. But with a little music and the prospect of free samples to taste, it’s time well spent (away from the phone).
It took a few years of trying, but I’ve managed to streamline a cooking process for peaches that not only cuts my time by half but yields a better texture and taste.
Here’s how: choose firm, ripe or almost-ripe peaches. (Don’t use greenish or hard ones.) Fill two big bowls with very cold water and place on the counter nearest the stove. Have a large empty bowl nearby.
Fill a 4-quart stainless steel or Corningware pot three-quarters full with water and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and carefully drop in peaches one by one, close together but without overcrowding. (This isn’t gefilte fish – all the peaches will bob to the surface and that’s as many you want cooking in one shot.) Cook, uncovered, a few minutes (if a fork can pierce the peach, it’s done, but I prefer the cooked fruit to retain some firmness. Trial and error will be your guide.) Remove the peaches one at a time (I use a fork) and immediately plunge into one of the cold water bowls. Wait till they cool a bit, and then dunk them again in the second cold-water bowl.
Drain and place peaches in the reserved empty bowl. Refill your cold water bowls and repeat the process. While each batch cooks, slip off the skins from the drained peaches (or as much skin as will easily let go). When cool enough to handle, slice or chop peaches (discarding the pits) and spoon into one-quart freezer bags, adding a tablespoon or two of brown sugar per bag.
If you’re starting to feel like Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with all those chocolates coming down the conveyor belt, don’t. Leave the skinning and slicing until all the peaches have been cooked and are cool enough to handle. Just have several bowls ready to hold the waiting fruit.
Again, leave some room at the top of each bag for the peaches and juice to expand in the freezer.
Make sure you change the cooking water after a couple of batches, and when reusing the water after the first batch, add some fresh water if the level is lower than what you started with.
Keep in mind, too, that sliced peaches throw off a lot of juice; I keep most of this excess liquid to use now in fruit drinks or fruit soup.
When you’re hankering for some sunshine next winter, defrost the peaches in their sealed bag that’s been placed in a roomy bowl (to catch any leaks) in the fridge. Or, when slightly defrosted, dump the contents into a microwave-safe bowl and zap till tepid but not hot. Enjoy at breakfast or with vanilla yogurt for dessert. Extra nice with some of those blueberries.