Still Life with Peaches, Panfilo Nuvolone (1581–1631).
Recipe: Peach Salad with Wild Arugula, Goat Cheese, Almonds, and Basil
It has been a good summer for peaches. Not so great for tomatoes, sadly, but at least we have good peaches. Some years they never seem to ripen, or they’re mealy (that’s the most upsetting of all). This year they seem perfect. And for me, good peaches mean I’ll be soaking them in wine, either red or white, but in true Southern Italian fashion usually red. My father always did that for us in the summer. And it was a regular offering at the Little Italy festivals of my childhood, peaches in wine served in plastic cups, before the booze-and-glamour police took over and decided vendors could only sell refrigerator magnets.
I’m not a religious person, but peaches and wine seems religious to me. After all, the fruit is anointed in the substance that is the usual stand-in for the blood of Christ. You can work the concept a few ways. Just bring peaches to the table and drop slices into your wineglass as an end-of-the-meal cap-off. Or do it up formal, and bring out a big presoaked bowl of peaches. That’s what my father preferred, more often than not.
From my experience, the longer they sit, the better or worse they become, depending on the wine. The peaches can get really bitter if the wine is bad, and we had some bad wine back then, especially the Chianti in a basket that turned my gums black (but turned the peaches a gorgeous shade of burgundy). If the peaches were sweet and the wine was mellow, you could have a most voluptuous summer dessert, especially after it was left to macerate for a time and the peach juice mingled with the wine, creating a kind of puckery sangria effect. My parents often bought a cheap Spanish wine when I was a kid. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was sort of rich tasting, not as acidic as most of the cheap Italian stuff they also bought. It was very good with peaches. My father insisted you couldn’t really enjoy peaches in wine without a cigarette. A slurp of wine, a bite of peach, a suck on the cigarette—for him, a beautiful trilogy.
That was my first taste of peaches made savory, and I loved it with a passion. I guess I’ve been fascinated from an early age with nudging the flavor of fruit away from the sweet. I’d rather eat duck breast with vinegary peaches than eat peach pie. Peaches with basil or mint and peaches tossed with olive oil and onion are flavor combinations I daydream about, but those dishes can easily become a reality, if you’re game.
Which brings me to what I view as my favorite dish this summer, the peach salad. Savory peach salads seem to be turning up on restaurant menus all around town. I had a good one at Aurora, on Broome Street, a few weeks ago. It included Parmigiano cheese and hazelnuts. When a trend turns out to be worthwhile, there’s nothing better for an antsy cook to play around with, and I’ve been playing around with it.
I recently had what I consider the best peach salad of the season, at my favorite out-of-town restaurant, Peekamoose, in Big Indian, New York, deep in the not so prosperous Catskills. With places up there closing left and right, this place only gets better and busier, and that’s because it’s excellent (take note, all you mediocre places complaining of no customers). Devin Mills, the chef at Peekamoose, creates food with a delicate touch. His peach salad is a composition of pure beauty, a toss of local peaches, arugula, and red onion, with a scattering of goat cheese and a few pistachios, all held together by a gently vinegared dressing. It is a great mix of bitter, sweet, sour, and salty.
Here’s my take on it.
Peach Salad with Wild Arugula, Goat Cheese, Almonds, and Basil
1 large bunch wild arugula (or use the regular supermarket arugula), stemmed
1 perfectly (not excessively) ripe peach, cut into thin wedges
A handful of blanched whole almonds, lightly toasted
A few very thin slices of red onion
About a half a small log of fresh goat cheese
A dozen basil leaves, left whole
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
A few drops of balsamic vinegar
A pinch of grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Place the arugula in a medium-size salad bowl. Add the peach slices, the almonds, and the red onion. Crumble on the goat cheese, and add the basil leaves.
In a small bowl, whisk together the sherry and balsamic vinegar with the olive oil, and season it with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Pour it over the salad, and toss gently. Serve right away.