Saturday, July 30, 2011

Karla’s Perfect Peaches

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         It was one of those minor, but satisfying, coincidences: the first appearance of Karla’s peaches coinciding with a visit from my old friend, Lynne, who I hadn’t seen in several years. The important bit here is that Lynne is originally from the South—Birmingham and then Montgomery, Alabama, to be precise—and though she escaped at an early age and is a committed New Englander, there are a few things that are as died in the wool (as we would say here) about her as a Southerner as the love of the ocean is for us. One of those things is her adoration, and critical judgment, of a good peach. I remember her talking about peaches to me when I first met her—many, many years ago—and, like many Southerners, she often mentions them in the same breath as the words summer, childhood, Mother, and ice cream. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
So I was excited to see the little sign saying “Karla’s peaches soon!” and then the YFF (Young Family Farm) sign with a price equivalent to those harking from, well, South, but I didn’t see them anywhere. Sold out, I asked? No, just hadn’t washed them yet—they were sitting, hidden, in a big flat out back, waiting for their pre-sale bath. I asked to take some as-is, and picked out about eight beauties. A few I would grill and put into our all-grilled chicken salad; the rest I would give to Lynne to take home to eat, leaning over, dripping out of hand.
Lynne and I had such a nice visit, but of course, when we parted after a long leisurely lunch, I forgot to give them to her, and she to take them. She emailed me when she got home—oh, no!—just around the time I discovered them on the counter when I went into the kitchen to do the dishes.
Next morning I walked into the kitchen and was immediately struck with the powerful perfume of perfectly ripe peaches. Such alliterative peaches will peel, effortlessly, without blanching. Their flesh is the ideal texture. Lynne would eat them just as is. But I, as we know, like my stone fruits cooked, with pastry. Here is the Peaches saladquickest way I know to have that combination, perfect for perfect peaches.
Peach Pizza
This is a galette (crostata), thin and simple as a pizza.
The pastry from the apple galette post
4 perfect, just-ripe peaches, medium to large OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
¼ large lemon
Pinch salt
3 T brown sugar
1 T flour
2 tea sugar
¼ tea cinnamon or nutmeg (optional)
1 T maple syrup (optional)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Preheat the oven to 425F. Make the pastry according to the directions and chill.
With a sharp paring knife, run the point down from end to end to slit the skin; peel the peaches and discard the skins. (If your peaches are not quite ripe, you may need to blanch them for a minute in boiling water to facilitate peeling; and you could leave the skins on, of course.) Slice the peaches about ¼“thick and arrange them in one layer on a plate; sprinkle with lemon juice and salt.
On a rimless cookie sheet or back of a sheet pan, roll out the dough into a rough oval, about 1/8” thick (i.e., very thin). Sprinkle over the brown sugar and flour and smooth it with the palm of your hand to within an inch of the edge. Arrange the peach slices in concentric circles on the sugar/flour, leaving space between them. Sprinkle the peaches with the white sugar, mixed with the spice if using. Roll the border of the pastry in toward the peaches into a little levee.
Bake at 425 F for 15 minutes; reduce to 350 F and bake about 10-15 min more (adjust cooking times according to your oven). You will hear the peaches begin to sizzle right away; when the tart is done, they will be embedded in a thin, slightly gelled sauce. Remove to a rack to cool. Brush with a little maple syrup while warm if desired. Cut with a pizza cutter or very sharp large knife when lukewarm. Serve plain the same day it is baked, preferably as soon as it has cooled.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

That Sour Cherry Season

The sour cherries are gone now—for the second time. It was an odd cherry season, puzzling everyone, including the farmers. You’ve heard me talk about how fleeting a giftOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  sour cherries are, coming in right around the 4th of July for perhaps two weeks, then over until the next year. This year, the cherries, like everything else, were late. They had suffered from the heavy spring rain, and the birds. The bird problem was compounded this year by the tough winter, which had two disastrous effects on the cherries: farmers didn’t bother to net the trees because they didn’t expect much, and the birds were ravenous.
So at conventional-wisdom cherry time, the cherries were sparse and water-laden. Working with the farmer to pick from my favorite old Montmorency tree, he instructed me to pull them off with stems intact—not the normal procedure—so that they wouldn’t absorb yet more water through where the stem had been when they were washed. The cherries had been left on the tree too long—again, the assumption that they were not as good as usual and that, after the winter, they were not ready—but they turned out to be overripe as well as waterlogged from the rain. Down the road at Young Farm, they got only a few boxes off five trees.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen something strange happened. The weather got nice—dryer, sunnier—and the cherries came back. A second (or maybe just the “real”) crop. These were primarily from the newer and infinitely less desirable hybrid trees, but still: fruit with some of the characteristics of the old sour cherries. For the first time that I can ever recall, there were sour cherries of any kind well past the middle of July.
Naturally the first priority of the season is to make a pie. My first one, made with those waterlogged cherries, was pretty enough, but not so good, at least by the standards of someone in the know. I always make some sort of preserve, perhaps the most special kind you can make (homemade strawberry being a close second as irreplicable on a commercial scale). This year, when I am flying rather than driving back to my academic-year home and am traveling light, I decided to make something versatile that could be used up by the time I left. No problem.
Cherry-Cherry Preserves
This should be cooked a little thicker than usual (my usual, at least, which is fluid) so you can use it as a garnish for cheese, meats, or sandwiches. Makes 3-4pints.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
3 c pitted sour cherries
1 heaping cup supersweet yellow cherry tomatoes
2 ½ c sugar
½ c brown sugar
2 tea lemon juice
1 tea vanilla
¼ tea Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakesSour cherries tomatoes cooking
Pinch salt
Blanch the cherry tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds; slip the skins off with your fingers or remove them with a sharp knife.
Put the cherry tomatoes, cherries, sugars, and lemon juice in a 3 qt pot and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming the white foam, until it sheets from the spoon. Add the vanilla, pepper, and salt. Cook for a minute or two longer, and remove from the heat. It should be clear. Divide among sterilized jars and cover with lids and loosely fitted rings. When cool, tighten the rings and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Bring to room temperature before serving.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA              sour cherries plate

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beets for Dessert

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI often write about my love for beets, and they’re due for a reprise on the blog again because they are so truly wonderful. And they are cheap and available. They were waiting for me when I arrived in Little Compton, and they continue to wave at me from their bin at the farm stand, signaling their suitability for a match with corn, or that they would make a very good cold soup.
As a reminder from my post on beet taquitos, this little known fact: beets are considered to be an aphrodisiac. So though I was thinking of making some Red Flannel Hash, a traditional New England dish, with the nice plump beets I bought, I started thinking about beets for dessert. My first thought was to pair the beets with another aphrodisiac, chocolate. A cake would be nice, I mused—and I will definitely experiment with that when I have both more time and access to my baking equipment; the LC cottage kitchen is rather sparse in that department. But the dessert idea persisted.
I’m not really sure what possessed me to switch from homey hash for breakfast to the idea of a seductive sauce for after dinner, but I decided beets would make a beautiful, and interesting, topping for ice cream. They are, of course, super sweet. When cooked, they bleed tons of brilliant purple color and become as smoothly tender as a ripe mango. Why not? And it fits nicely with one of my mottos: keep them guessing.

Caramelized Beet Topping OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 bunch (3-4) medium beets 
1 c water
½ c sugar
¼ c maple syrup
3” piece stick cinnamon
Few drops lemon juiceBeets syrup1
Preheat oven to 400 F. Follow the directions for roasting beets here, except cook them for only about 15 minutes, until a knife will go in but does not automatically slide out  when the beet is lifted. Cool the beets in the foil. (You can refrigerate them at this point and finish the sauce at any time over the next few days.)
Peel the beets and then, with a very sharp thin-bladed knife, cut the beets cleanly into 1/4” dice. Set aside.
Bring the water, sugar, maple syrup, and cinnamon to a boil in a medium saucepan and boil for about 5 minutes; it will be a light caramel color. Add the beets, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until beets are very tender but begin to caramelize and acquire a slightly chewy bite. The syrup will remain fluid and become very purple. Add a few drops of lemon as you take it off the heat. Let cool, and serve over ice cream. If you don’t use it the day you make it, this should be refrigerated and used within a few days.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Rhode Island Red Fruit: Currants and Raspberries

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I stopped by the fruit lady’s this weekend, timing my visit from long experience with the hope of catching, not just the fruit before it was gone, but the farmer herself and her husband. It was nearly the 4th, which means: time to negotiate the delicate dance of acquiring a share of the sour cherries. Over the years I have come to realize that one reason that this is so tricky is that they want some too. The nerve.
Fortuitously, the fruit lady was driving out in her golf cart from the field just as I got out of my car; when I pulled up, there was no fruit on the stand, and no one in sight, and I had determined to risk offense by venturing out behind the house. This is not always prudent, as, of course, neither am I. So I was glad to see her coming toward me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We (her husband soon buzzed up on his little tractor) had the first of several conversations (negotiations) about the cherries that would culminate a week or so later in my securing, with great difficulty, two quarts of fruit, about which more next week. For now, there were the currants and the first raspberries, and I thought how early July truly is the time of red fruits in Rhode Island. Hence, the little in-joke of Rhode Island Red Fruits, and Rhode Island Red muffins. Couldn’t resist.
As you know from prior rants, I truly cannot stand the common bakery muffin—cake-like, sugary, huge. The one I offer below is an old-fashioned muffin of the non-mutant, non-cake type. It has a nice balance of crisp outside and tender, crumbly inside—as it should.
Rhode Island Red Muffins
No, not muffins made of chickens, or muffins for chickens—just a little play on words. These are all currants, but you could use half currants and half raspberries; I just happened to eat all of mine. Makes 12-15, depending on your pan.Red fruits crumbs
Topping 1 c bread flour
½ c lt brown sugar, packed
5 T unsalted butter, melted
½ tea cinnamon
Big pinch (about 1/8 tea) baking powder
Small pinch salt
Muffin batterOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 2 c a-p flour
½ cup RI jonnycake or other white stoneground cornmeal 
4 tea baking powder
½ c sugar
½ tea salt
6 T unsalted butter, melted
¾ c half and half
2 T pure maple syrup
1 lg egg
1 cup, generous, currants or half currants and half raspberries

Preheat oven to 375F. Generously butter a standard muffin tin.
To make the topping

Blend the flour with the cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Dump in the packed sugar, pour the butter over, and use a fork in a chopping motion to combine the sugar with the flour until the flour the mixture is moistened and crumbly. Set aside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
To make the batter
Stem and pick over the currants and put them in a small bowl.
Mix all dry ingredients in a 2-qt bowl. Remove a large handful of the mixture and add it to the currants, tossing gently with your hand to coat.
Pour the milk into a measuring cup; add the maple syrup and the egg. Beat with a fork til blended. Add to the dry mixture, stirring just long enough to combine, with a wooden spoon. Pour the currants and any excess flour mixture into the batter; fold it in using your hand.
Drop the batter into buttered muffin tin, filling about ¾ full. Sprinkle each muffin with some of the crumb mixture to reach the top. Bake about 18-22 minutes, rotating the pan once, until the tops of the muffins (a little will show through the crumbs) begin to turn golden and the fruit starts to ooze a little; the currants, though, will mostly hold their shape. Remove to a rack; let cool for 5 minutes; then turn out on the rack to cool ‘til warm enough to handle. Break with your hands and serve with butter. If you freeze the extras, be sure to re-warm either in the toaster oven of, if in the microwave, at low power as briefly as possible.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Peas Please: Fourth of July in New England

The 2011 growing season seems to be shaping up nicely, with more, earlier—two good things—than expected. There have already been wonderful snap peas, so sweet and crisp-tender that I have been eating them raw more often than not; and now there are elegant, slim green beans and the paradoxically much maligned and much beloved English or garden pea. Today we will consider the pea.
I am not really sure why they are called English peas, because they are not native there and they have other common names, like garden or shell pea. But most of us just call these “peas” and everyone knows what we are talking about. Peas are high in protein and vitamin C—perhaps the reason children are always being admonished to finish them. They are eaten fresh with surprising rarity, in part because of their short season (they don’t like the heat) but mostly—given the now year-round availability of nearly everything, including other kinds of peas—because their sweet tenderness quickly turns to mealy toughness; they don’t travel well. They are like corn in this regard. As a result, only about 5% of all peas are sold fresh. Most peas are frozen (or canned), and fresh-frozen peas are one of the very few frozen items I ever buy. But if you see them fresh I recommend them, because they really are different when cooked because they can still be eaten crisp. I wouldn’t buy them fresh-shelled, which you sometimes see at good markets or farmers markets, unless you can confirm they were shelled TODAY. Otherwise, you are throwing that high price that you just paid away.
The shelling, in my opinion, is no big deal, and has its own pleasures. Holding them over a bowl, pull from the stem end and pop them open along the seam: the peas will come tumbling out with the gentlest brush of a finger. This is an excellent activity to do with a toddler as it doubles as a game and lesson in learning to count, and also in nature’s variety. How many peas inside? 5, 6, 7, 8? Today I had one pea with 10—a record. It is delightfully unpredictable, as there seems to be a rather imperfect correlation between pod size and pea count. The peas are shiny and pretty; pop one of these spherical seeds in your mouth. Apparently, the act of shelling peas is arousing as well; who knew? In the late 19th century, Harry Breaker Morant wrote in his poem A-shelling Peas:
      Old earth owns many sights to see
      That captivate and please; -
      The most bewitching sight for me
      Is Nell a-shelling peas.
This year’s peas have arrived on schedule, in time for the 4th of July, when they have a long and venerable tradition on the New England table. One would scarcely know that nowadays by looking at the typical 4th of July repast: burgers and dogs, lobster rolls, or ribs and pulled pork do not exactly shout “peas!” for a side dish. But of course, burgers and dogs, lobster rolls, and ribs and pulled pork did not used to be traditional in New England. Poached salmon was. And that was accompanied by boiled potatoes and English peas, and some sort of lemony sauce. Devotee of old traditions that I am, I used to make this myself every year. But frankly, I am not a huge fan of salmon, and who really wants to eat hot side dishes with cold food? For the 4th, I like a good burger, or some grilled (or fried) scallops. And some potato salad.
So have whatever you want (it is, after all, Independence Day), but do mind your peas.
Fourth of July Potato and Pea Salad
This is more the colors of the Mexican than the American flag, but its 4th of July credentials are true-blue. The garlicky mayonnaise sauce bears some resemblance in flavor to aioli, which you could use, but this is lighter and more subtle. And has the lemon. Serves 2-3.Peas shelled
1 lb small red-skin potatoes
1 cup shelled fresh English peas
½ c homemade or good-quality commercial mayonnaise such as Hellman’s®
1 tea extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 large, fresh garlic clove, peeled and smashed
2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about ½ large lemon)
1/8 tea salt
7 or 8 twists of freshly ground black pepper
1 scallion, finely sliced, for garnish
Shell the peas as soon before cooking as possible. Blanch them in boiling water for about 3 minutes; do not overcook. Pour into a strainer, run cold water over, and let drain  thoroughly.
Cut the potatoes in half (quarters if large) and boil until tender; they will slide off a knife inserted in the center, but will not fall apart. Depending on the size and age of your potatoes, this could take 15-25 minutes.
While the potatoes are cooking, put the mayonnaise in a bowl and add the whole smashed garlic clove(s), salt, and pepper; stir and set aside for at least 20 minutes.
Drain the potatoes. Fish out the garlic from the mayonnaise. Add the 2 T of lemon juice; it is a lot, and you can use less if you want, but I like it for this. The mayonnaise will thin considerably. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, slice them into the sauce, and toss gently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Add the peas and toss. It will be saucy, suitable for accompanying poached or grilled fish or shellfish. Or burgers.
Let sit on the counter for 30 minutes or so before serving; to repeat my mantra: do not refrigerate. Just before serving, taste for seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with the scallion and/or, if you wish, finely minced parsley or a little mint. Refrigerate any leftovers and bring to cool room temperature again before eating; the peas will have lost some of their bright green color from the acid.
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