Thursday, July 26, 2012

Peach season in Palisade and our weekend of fruit and wine...

It's peach season in Palisade, and last weekend I was thrilled to find myself surrounded by peach orchards and vineyards.  Friday morning we packed up the car and headed west - I still didn't know where we were going - but a weekend trip to Colorado's western slopes was Jamie's birthday surprise for me.

By that afternoon, we were in the middle of wine country, vineyards and orchards in every direction we looked.  Farms with roadside stores were everywhere, a tempting bounty of peaches, plums, apricots, sweet cherries and tomatoes for sale, along with hundreds of varieties of homemade jams and preserves, pickles, salsas and sauces.

I was so excited and wanted to try a sample of everything, but the cooler we brought with us ended up being a bit too small for all the fresh fruit, and we still had the whole weekend ahead of us, so I tried to restrain myself.  Peaches were in such abundance, that when I bought just tomatoes from one farm, the lady handed us each a peach to eat while we were browsing, plus a full bag of peaches to take with us for free.

The western slopes of Colorado are oh-so-very-hot.  The region is dry and desert-like, with the fruit and grapes thriving from the hot days and cooler nights.  Near Palisade is the city of Grand Junction, where we stayed for two nights at the Los Altos B&B, situated at the top of a hill, with a panoramic view of the city below and the Colorado National Monument.  At night, a cool breeze floating across the desert provided relief from our sweltering day in the sun.

After dinner, we enjoyed a glass of wine on the balcony of our room while watching a lightning storm on the National Monument, and then Jamie taught me how to play chess.  I have a long ways to go in learning that game - he beat me pretty quickly.

Saturday morning after breakfast, we headed to the National Monument, an impressive landscape of red rock formations and canyons.  Trails branched off of Rim Rock Road in every direction, luring adventurous hikers and rock climbers, and cyclists pedaled their way up and down the twisting road.  I didn't envy them that ride in the blistering heat; every time we got out to explore and take photos, we had the welcoming chill of the car's air conditioner to look forward to.

The owner of the B&B had advised us that if we wanted to escape the heat of the valley, we should drive up the Grand Mesa, which, at about 11,000 feet, is the world's largest flat-top mountain and rises about 5,000 feet above the surrounding valley.  And within the half-hour it took to drive up, the temperature miraculously dropped from 99 degrees to 70 degrees.  It was amazing.

First we drove through the town of Mesa, a beautiful area full of aspen and spruce groves and horse pastures;  even the horses seemed happier up there.  I'm sure it's so beautiful in the fall.  Then we reached Island Lake, one of over 200 clear blue lakes on the mountain, where people were camping, fishing and boating.  We didn't see much wildlife, though, other than the occasional chipmunk scampering across the road.

When we left the mountain top, we were assaulted once more by the heat wave greeting us in the valley, but we didn't let that stop us from visiting a few of the wineries in Palisade.  We ate dinner that evening at The Winery Restaurant in Grand Junction, which is known for its beef and lamb.  The lamb chops didn't disappoint at all, and we finished dinner by sharing their signature chocolate dessert, layers of chocolate mousse with a raspberry sauce, called "The Palisade".

Sunday morning, we ate breakfast at the B&B with another couple staying there, and had the chance to visit with the owners for a while, too.  It's so interesting to me to hear the stories of the people you chance to meet on these types of trips.  I find that people will share details of their lives over a relaxing meal together, and you leave feeling like you've made a friend.  The owner met his wife in Korea while he was serving in the military, and after he returned to the U.S., they wrote letters.  Eventually, she was able to join him in the States and now they've been married for 40-some years.  The romantic in me wonders how they fell in love, what their lives were like before they met each other, what cultural differences they overcame to be with each other...  She does all the cooking at the B&B, and after raving about the apricot scones she'd baked that morning, spread with some of her homemade sweet cherry preserves, I was happy to find out that she has a few of her recipes available on their website.

After breakfast, we decided to take a detour through Paonia, another wine-country region not too far from Palisade.  We'd stayed in Paonia for a weekend last summer, and were excited to get to re-visit a few of our favorite wineries.  Although near in proximity, the outdoor views and culture of Palisade and Paonia are distinctly different, although both inviting in their own way.  Paonia is certainly more scenic, with views of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a few wineries that boast of being the highest operating wineries in the Northern hemisphere.

I love the name of Paonia, a variation of the Latin version of peony, Paeonia mascula.  Samuel Wade, one of the settlers of the area in 1880, named the town for his favorite flower; the town was officially incorporated in 1902.

Azura Cellars and Gallery, owned by a couple who also sells their art pieces from the art gallery in their tasting room, is beautifully built with a stone courtyard and shaded patio where visitors are invited to linger over a glass of wine, relaxing in the shade while gazing at the beautiful view of the valley.

Next we stopped at Stone Cottage Cellars, and the owner was more than generous with information about grape growing and wine making.  She explained that the grape-growing season in Colorado is much shorter than that of California, which is why Colorado vineyards are unable to produce deeper wines such as Cabernets.  She also invited us to stroll through the vineyards, where we saw how small and green the grapes still are, although the red grapes will turn from green to red before harvest-time.  She really seemed to love her life there with her husband, and I have to admit, listening to her talk made the life of a vineyard owner sound incredibly appealing.

Our last stop was Terror Creek Winery, which was in the Guiness Book of World Records as being the highest-altitude vineyard, until one in Chile beat the record.  Terror Creek Winery, named for a snow-fed stream running alongside the property, has a beautiful view of Paonia and the mountains beyond.

A sunny apricot tree loaded with ripe fruit graced the lawn, with piles of fallen fruit scattered over the grass.  The owner said she was hardly able to keep up with harvesting, and when she handed me a paper bag and asked me if I wanted to pick some apricots to take with me, I was only too happy to agree.

And then it was time to head home.  We arrived back in Denver late Sunday night, with a small mountain of fruit, bottles of wine, specialty balsamic vinegars and a jar or two of salsa, piled on the kitchen counter.

The first thing I wanted to bake with some of the fruit was a mixed fruit crumble.  I consider this a very healthy dessert, because I added almost no extra sugar or butter to it, but the issue of "healthy fruit" is a point where Jamie and I disagree.  Sugar is sugar, he says.  However, while I'm not saying it's the equivalent to a piece of baked chicken, I do think that for a dessert option it is a healthier choice than ice cream, cake or pie, which contains a lot more sugar, butter and flour.

This mixed fruit crumble is essentially just fruit and spices, with a simple oat topping.  Since I think crumbles are best enjoyed warm from the oven, I portioned it out into individual serving dishes, freezing the unbaked portions, to be baked and enjoyed later.

Next I decided I should try making a gazpacho, since it's summer after all.  I roasted tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and apricots with olive oil and rosemary, then pureed and strained the fruit, stirring in a touch of honey and balsamic vinegar.

The soup is delicious hot, and refreshing chilled, full of flavor from the roasted fruits, and with limitless possibilities, a few of which I listed in the recipe below...

I still have a few peaches and a bag full of apricots left, and tomorrow, I plan to make apricot peach preserves.  When the cool weather comes this fall, I can't think of a better way to remember our summer trip to the peach orchards than with a buttery jam tart and a glass of wine that tastes of hot sunny days in the orchards of Palisade and Paonia...

Mixed Summer Fruit Crumble
printable recipe

fruit filling:
  • 4 peaches, pitted and sliced
  • 4 apricots, pitted and sliced
  • 1 cup strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 cup sweet cherries, pitted
  • (other fruit, such as nectarines, blueberries and plums would be fantastic in this crumble as well)
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
crumble topping:
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a 9x13 baking dish (or 8 individual ramekins) with non-stick spray.  If using individual ramekins, place these on top of a cookie sheet lined with foil.

Combine all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl; let sit for 10 minutes until juicy.  Spoon into baking dish/es.

In a separate bowl, combine all of the topping ingredients; use a fork or your fingers to mash the butter in until the topping is moist and crumbly.  Sprinkle over the fruit.

Bake at 350 until the topping is golden brown and the fruit juices are bubbling (about 25-30 minutes for individual ramekins and 35-40 minutes for a 9x13 pan).  Let cool for 30 minutes, then serve warm.

Cook's Note:
The crumble can be assembled in advance and frozen (unbaked), wrapped tightly in plastic for about 6 months.  Individual portions can then be thawed in the refrigerator overnight and baked fresh.

Yields 8 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Roasted Summer Fruit Gazpacho
printable recipe

  • 6 tomatoes
  • 4 peaches
  • 4 nectarines
  • 10 small apricots (5-6 medium)
  • (strawberries, cherries and plums would be a delicious addition also...)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary (fresh sprigs would be better!)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • optional garnishes: sweet clover sprouts, sliced fruit, chopped basil, mint leaves, feta cheese, sour cream, yogurt, seasoned croutons, sliced toasted bread, etc...

Preheat the oven to 400.  Line a baking sheet with foil.  Place all of the fruit on the baking sheet.  Drizzle with the olive oil, and season with rosemary, salt and pepper.  Roast for about 15-20 minutes, until the fruit is very soft and the skins have split.  Let cool for about 30 minutes, until cool enough to handle.

Slide the skins off the fruit and remove the pits; don't worry about getting all the skin off since you'll be straining the soup anyway.

Place all of the fruit in a blender (work in batches if you need to), and add the water to help blend it into a smooth puree.  Pour through a mesh strainer and discard any pulp left behind.

Stir the balsamic vinegar, honey and cinnamon into the soup.

Possible uses for the gazpacho:
  1. The soup can be eaten right away, warmed if desired, topped with any of the above garnishes.
  2. Chill the soup completely for a refreshing snack or starter to a meal.
  3. Blend with ice for a slushy drink.
  4. Freeze portions to use later, added to tomato-based soups, or even a pot of chili in the fall, for a fruity flavor enhancement.
  5. Add to loaf breads and muffins instead of butter or oil, the same as you might substitute applesauce.

Yields 8-10 servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen