Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

THE Star Ledger

Jersey peaches are cooking up just fine and dandy

Pickled and caramelized, sauteed and grilled, sprinkled with sea salt and studded with peppercorns, peaches are starring on restaurant menus throughout August — “Jersey Fresh Peach Month” — thanks to a joint effort of the NJ Peach Promotion Council and the NJ Restaurant Association.

The “Jersey Peach Salute” is designed to introduce diners to new uses for one of summer’s best-loved fruits at the peak of its season.

“We’ll get a couple of cases in and we’ll start using them everywhere: cocktails, salads, entrees, desserts. Customers like that connection to the seasonal ingredients,” said Tom Carlin, chef-owner of the Gladstone Tavern in Gladstone, one of the 12 restaurants participating in the promotion. “I look forward to peaches, as I do to blueberries, corn and tomatoes. I think it is one of the very special treats that we have in New Jersey,” said Will Mooney, chef-owner of The Brothers Moon in Hopewell, another participating restaurant.

At The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, Bruce Lefebvre, the executive chef, has already kicked off the fourth edition of his annual five-course peach tasting menu. It includes what he calls his “signature dish of the season” — peach “carpaccio,” which combines slices of raw peaches from Wemrock Orchards in Freehold with arugula, duck confit and spiced almonds.

Meanwhile, at roadside stands, tailgate markets and supermarkets that stock local produce, fruit aficionados can look forward to a peachy harvest.

“The peach crop is a bumper crop,” said Jerry Frecon, a peach specialist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County. The state’s 7,000 acres of peaches are expected to yield 60 to 70 million pounds of fruit — up from about 55 million last year — by the time the season ends in mid-September. “We had a very mild winter; we had no time when we were afraid of low-temperature injury. And we had a good spring with ample moisture and good weather,” he explained.

With about 90 peach orchards, New Jersey usually ranks fourth nationwide in peach production. Large commercial growers are concentrated in the southern counties of Atlantic, Camden, Gloucester and Salem. About 30 peach growers are found in the northern part of the state, each cultivating two to 40 acres of the fruit, said Win Cowgill, a fruit specialist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County.

According to the NJ Peach Promotion Council, more than 40 varieties of peaches grow in the state: 90 percent are yellow-fleshed, four percent are white-fleshed, six percent are nectarines (fuzzless peaches), and one percent are flat peentos, which often are labeled as Saturn or Donut peaches.

Unlike apples, which are marketed by variety, peaches usually are tagged simply according to their flesh color. To get the right shade of lavender-peach in his peach and opal basil sorbet, Carlin uses white-fleshed peaches. But for cooking purposes, yellow and white peaches are largely interchangeable, said Mooney.

The main considerations are texture and flavor. “You don’t want a peach that’s over-ripe,” explained Carlin. “They should be tender, but not falling apart.”

Lefebvre suggests buying only enough peaches that you can use in the next few days, replenishing as necessary, so you’re not tempted to refrigerate them, which ruins their texture. Firm peaches and nectarines should be left out at room temperature to soften until ready to eat. Cooked–or not.

— Shopping hints: The amount of red blush on the skins of peaches and nectarines can vary, depending on the variety. But the skins of yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines should have a substantial portion of red overcolor over a yellow background; that of white-fleshed varieties should have a substantial portion of red overcolor over a white background.

Avoid fruit with green-tinged skin or that’s shriveled or bruised. The fruit also should be firm, not hard or mushy, and aromatic. The pits of peentos, sometimes labeled Donut or Saturn peaches, should easily pop out, leaving a characteristic doughnut-type hole in the center of the fruit.

— The chef recommends: Top-grilled flour tortillas with crumbled goat cheese, grilled peach segments, and arugula and chives tossed with vinaigrette, then grill for two minutes to melt the goat cheese: From Bruce Lefebvre, executive chef, The Frog and the Peach, New Brunswick).

Saute peaches in a bit of butter or oil, seasoning with salt and a touch of vinegar or white wine; serve with seafood: From Tom Carlin, chef-owner of the Gladstone Tavern in Gladstone).

Roast pitted peach halves, tossed with canola or grape seed oil to keep them from sticking, in a 275-degree oven for about 45 minutes: From Will Mooney, chef-owner of The Brothers Moon in Hopewell).

— To peel a peach: Score lightly at the bottom end; place in boiling water for 1-3 minutes. When the peaches are removed from the water, their skin should easily peel off.

— Nutrition notes: Peaches are rich in vitamins A and C and are a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, and potassium.

— Fun facts: In ancient China, peaches symbolized immortality; the ancient Romans considered them sacred to Venus, goddess of love. Colonists began planting European peach varieties in this area in the 1600s. Today in Japan, the hanayome (“bride”), a large white peach popular as a good luck gift for newlyweds, can sell for about $800 apiece.

— For more info: For a listing of peach growers in the state that sell directly to consumers and/or offer pick-your-own, go to the website of the NJ Department of Agriculture’s Jersey Fresh Program, www.state.nj.us/jerseyfresh/ and the NJ Farm Bureau, www.njfb.org. More information on Jersey peaches, including recipes, is available at the NJ Peach Promotion Council’s website, www.jerseypeaches.com.