My younger sister used to joke that al dente was Italian for impatient.
Her quip was on my mind last week after I brought home from the store nearly a dozen of the season’s first nectarines and peaches, then impatiently began poking and prodding at them, trying to figure out which ones I could eat right away. I cut into few that were indeed quite al dente, and at least one that was apple-hard and green toward the pit, despite being soft at the skin. But among them were a few succulent glories, the kinds of fruits I dream about from September to May.
Impatient connotes a wide range of emotions, from giddy Christmas-morning eagerness to traffic-jam irritability. To a fruit lover like me, June is a month when I’m likely to experience the gamut of this word’s meanings. I am awash with joy and excitement when the first summer fruits begin to appear, and cranky when they refuse to turn tender and juicy just in time for my daily breakfasts.
But who am I to feel impatient? Peaches are one of the oldest domesticated fruits, having been cultivated for at least 4,000 years in China; nectarines, a natural mutation, are likely equally ancient. Not long ago, archeologists actually found a fossilized peach pit believed to be 6,000 years old.
It took the peach nearly two millennia to migrate along the silk route to Persia, where it picked up the precursor to its English name (Persicum, Latin for “Persian apple,” is the root of “peach”), and almost as long to arrive in North America. Spanish monks brought hardy, compact peach pits to St. Augustine, Florida, where the trees flourished.
Although nearby Georgia would go on to claim the fruit as its state mascot and peppy license-plate decal, less than 5 percent of America’s peach crop is grown there. The majority comes from California. And while peach pits may travel well even on 16th-century Spanish galleons, peaches themselves have always bruised easily, which is why commercially-raised fruits are harvested immature and transported al dente to the grocery store.
Oh well. There are worse things than waiting for a bowl of peaches and nectarines to ripen on my countertop. Meanwhile, I can pretend that my perseverations over whether I dare eat one makes me a poetical figure, like Prufock, rather than an impatient jerk. T.S. Eliot was well aware that Chinese mythology associates peaches with marriage, sex and immortality, and maybe he imagined that J. Alfred P. was hankering after all three as he paced the beach in his white flannel trousers. Me, I’m just happy with the occasional, truly sublime peach.
When I do happen to find myself in possession of a bevy of sub-perfect peaches and nectarines, however, it’s nice to have a few recipes on hand that make delicious use of the fruits, no matter how firm. My new savory favorite is this variation on a Chinese side dish called “Tiger Salad,” named for its vibrant, even ferocious, flavors. I like fruit dishes that don’t call for a lot of sugar and butter. I also like that this one brings the peach full circle, back to its Chinese origins, after an interlude of a mere 6,000 years plus a few antsy days.
Ferocious Peach Salad
- 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 3 to 4 underripe nectarines or peaches, cut into thin wedges
- 1 jalapeno or serrano chile, thinly sliced, seeds optional
- 3 to 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
- ½ cucumber, peeled
- 1 large bunch cilantro, leaves and tender stems only, roughly chopped
- 1½ teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- Zest and juice of one lime
- 2 cups cooked rice (see note)
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds and/or salted peanuts
In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, sugar and salt until the sugar has dissolved. Add the sliced peaches and/or nectarines and the chile, and toss gently to coat. Set aside for 10 to 12 minutes to allow flavors to marinate, tossing occasionally.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the sliced scallions and celery. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and use a small spoon to scrape out the seeds. Cut into half-moons or chunks. Add to the celery mixture, along with the chopped cilantro and rice.
Set a strainer over a small bowl and drain the peach-chile mixture; set the fruit aside.
Whisk the soy sauce, sesame oil, lime zest and juice into the bowl with the marinating liquid, then pour this over the celery-rice mixture, tossing well to combine. Add the fruit, and toss gently. Sprinkle with sesame seeds or peanuts and serve.
Note: Because rice can harden when it cools, prepare according to package directions, adding 2 to 3 tablespoons additional water plus a couple of tablespoons of mild oil, such as grapeseed or canola. When rice is completely cooked and still hot, toss with a teaspoon of rice vinegar.