When I first arrived in Bloomington a few years ago, I burst into tears. I contend it was the confluence of a sleepless night, a long day of plane travel marked by multiple delays, and the growing anxiety of starting both a new degree and life in a Midwestern town more than 2,000 miles from my Bay Area home that reduced me to a pathetic puddle. My parents, who claim to know me better than I know myself, maintain that I was merely cranky from hunger.\nWhichever the case, a dinner at the Uptown Cafe and a bag of donut peaches from Kroger saved the day. I had never before seen donut peaches and was sure they were a sign of a bizarre Midwestern produce world. But their snowy, pink-splashed skin, charming squatness (they are pit-free), and quirky name were irresistible. Mom and Dad insisted I buy a whole bag. \nStill, it was with a doubting heart that I took my first bite. Unfortunately, it was wonderful-honey-sweet and dripping with juice. With peaches so good, I knew I would have to stay.\nNow is the time for finding the very same peaches, so be at the ready. Peaches, and their fuzzless nectarine cousins, can be available anytime from April to October, but July through August is their primetime. When making a selection, beware the temptations of the flesh -- the amount of reddish-pink on the peach's skin is determined by the variety, and is not necessarily an indicator of ripeness. The skin and flesh of a fine ripe peach can range from light pinkish-white to reddish-yellow. \nPut your nose to work and choose richly-scented peaches, making sure that they are unblemished and not too hard. They are highly perishable, so resist buying more than you can eat in 4-5 days, which is about how long they will keep. If you cannot resist buying a bushel, peel, pit, slice and freeze them in heavy plastic zipper bags. \nPass over the peaches with tinges of green; this usually means they were picked too early and will retain their cardboard flavor until the very end. Sweetness does not increase after picking, but a slightly ripe peach can be given a boost if placed in a closed paper bag at room temperature for a few days. Adding a banana to the bag will accelerate the process.\nOnce in your clutches, the joys of summer peaches are boundless. Devouring peaches out of hand is always a good use of time on a hot afternoon, but they can also brighten mornings if sliced and tossed on top of a bowl of yogurt or cereal, or diced and mixed into pancake or muffin batter. Come lunch or dinnertime, work them into just about any salad, skewer them with vegetables and chicken atop the grill, or slice them thin and use as a replacement for tomatoes on a chicken, turkey or ham sandwich.\nA simple task that will make you feel like a Food Network celebrity is peeling peaches. It is fine to leave peach skin on in casual dishes, but it should be removed for baking or fancier presentations. Bring a saucepan full of water to a boil, placing a bowl of ice water nearby. Place one peach at a time in the boiling water for about 30-60 seconds, then remove it immediately and plunge into the ice water bath to stop the heat's effects. Slip the skin off with your fingertips or the tip of a paring knife; that's it. Keep the peaches from discoloring with a sprinkle of fresh lime or lemon juice.\nIf you make the cinnamon peach loaves or the salad, do not count on leftovers. Clean tastes and fresh, uncomplicated flavors rule in each recipe, as does ease of preparation, just the thing for high summer.\nCINNAMON-PEACH LOAVES\n1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar \n1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine (not spread)\n2 eggs \n2 1/4 cups pureed peaches (about 1 and 1/2 pounds peaches)\n1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla\n2 cups all-purpose flour \n1 and 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon \n1 teaspoon baking soda \n1 teaspoon baking powder \n1/4 teaspoon salt \n1 cup finely chopped pecans \nPreheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter & flour two 9x5 loaf pans or 4 mini-loaf pans. In a large bowl, cream the brown sugar and butter together by hand or with electric mixer. Add eggs; mix thoroughly. Add peach puree and vanilla; mix thoroughly. In a medium bowl combine the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add to peach mixture along with pecans; mix just until combined (do not overmix). Pour into prepared pans and bake in preheated oven 1 hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pans; remove from pans and cool completely. Makes 2 loaves.\nPIQUANT PEACH & PECAN CHICKEN SALAD\n3 large ripe peaches\n2 and 1/2 cups cooked chicken \n1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion\n1/2 cup (more or less to taste) purchased poppy seed salad dressing\n1 6-ounce bag baby spinach leaves\n2/3 cup chopped, lightly toasted pecans\nCut 2 peaches into 1/3-inch pieces; place in large bowl. Add chicken and onion. Toss with enough dressing to coat. Cover and chill at least 15 minutes or up to all day. Add spinach and pecans to chicken mixture and toss to coat, adding more dressing, if desired. Mound salad on large plate. Cut remaining peach into thin wedges. Garnish salad with peach wedges and serve. Makes 4 servings.\nVEGETARIAN/VEGAN OPTION: 1 pound extra firm tofu may be substituted for the chicken. Dice tofu and drain thoroughly on double-thickness paper towels before using.
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