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Chef's recipe: Make the most of summer's peaches

Chef David Lee’s peach puree is a great starting point for chilled soup, sorbet or a summer cocktail.

JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Last year, I didn't have a single really good peach. With all the rain we had in Southwestern Ontario, the Niagara peaches tasted like imports, going directly from unripe and crunchy to rotting and mouldy without passing through that gloriously, messily juicy stage that has to be one of the top fruit-eating experiences going.

This year, however, it's almost as if you can taste the sunshine. And ripeness - full ripeness - is not an issue. I've had more peak peach experiences than I can remember having any other summer.

Part of what makes peaches special is how fickle they are: so good when the weather co-operates, yet so often disappointing. They help us truly appreciate summer. It's simple: If you have a good peach, you know it's been a good summer, and if you have a lot of good peaches, you know it's been a very good summer.

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As for what makes for a good peach, that's also simple: If you're tempted to stand over the sink or put on a bib to eat it, it's a good peach! Only a properly ripe mango offers a comparable fruit-eating experience, and even then I'd probably put peaches ahead because they're more versatile and easier to eat, especially freestone peaches.

Actually, it was my experience with mangoes that helped me properly appreciate peaches. I took the mangoes of my childhood for granted. In Mauritius, everybody grew them in their backyard, I was sure, and it was only when we moved to England when I was 6 that I learned differently. There, mangoes were a treat for special occasions, and even then they didn't taste like they did back home. And without any local English fruit that quite compared to the mangoes of my memory, the nostalgic hold they had on me grew.

What a wonderful shock it was, then, when I tried my first Niagara peach after moving to Toronto. Here was something that compared to the mangoes in Mauritius. And it was grown, if not in our literal backyard, then at least in our figurative backyard, just an hour's drive down the QEW.

I have featured peaches in my menus ever since. I've poached them, grilled them, roasted them, pan-fried them, baked them, even cooked them sous-vide, all with delicious results. I've incorporated them into desserts, salads and savoury dishes (peaches and pork being an especially felicitous combination). I've made peach jam, peach chutney, peach-infused vinegar. It's all been worth the effort.

I also can peaches for the winter months, but there's something special about eating them while the weather's still warm. It just seems right.

To that end, what I'd like to share with you, instead of a recipe proper, is one of the methods I've been using to make the most of this summer's peach bonanza, along with a few suggestions.

But first, a few words of caution. Peaches are not only a fickle crop, but a very delicate one. Their soft, fuzzy skins render them highly susceptible to mould and pests. Conventional farming's answer to this risk is pro-active spraying of peach trees with pesticides - pesticides that the soft, fuzzy skins serve to trap. As a result, peaches place near the top of the Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide residues put out by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization in the United States.

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I highly recommend buying organic Niagara peaches, which are available at better farmers' markets. You pay a premium for them, but it buys you peace of mind. If you cannot find organic peaches, be sure to wash your peaches well before eating or cooking with them. And even with organic peaches, it's still a good idea to wash them.

Peach Puree

1. Make a light, simple syrup by vigorously mixing 1/3 cup of sugar into 1 cup of water until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to the boil.

2. Sort your peaches, discarding any mealy ones as the flavour will not be good, and taking note of any very ripe ones.

3. Wash your peaches well, cut them in half and remove the stones.

4. Slice the peach halves into half-inch slices.

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5. Toss any really ripe slices into the syrup, then remove and put them in the bowl of a food processor.

6. Place the other, firmer slices in a saucepan, cover with the syrup and bring back to a boil. Let the slices poach in the syrup for four to six minutes until soft.

7. Buzz all of the peach slices and the syrup in the food processor for about 20 seconds, until you have a nice puree.

Now it's time to start experimenting.

I've used this puree to make cocktails (Bellinis and Peach Mojitos), peach iced tea, peach and sparkling icewine dessert soup, peach sorbet and peach ice-cream. It also makes a lovely condiment for vanilla ice cream with no further labour involved.

And that's just the start. Just now, while writing this article, I had the idea of using the peach and sparkling icewine soup to make a grownup version of an ice-cream float. Do let me know if you come up with any great uses for this puree yourself as you pause and appreciate our great summer.

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