Monthly Archives: July 2013

Peach basil cobbler

Okay, I’m starting this post with another photo disclaimer: It’s awful. It’s an awful photo. I’m sorry. But it was after dark, in a crowded kitchen, and I could only manage one photo before the whole thing was devoured by a dozen hungry friends.

I said devoured. This was peach cobbler, and it was profoundly delicious. It started with the best possible fruit–we were at my friend Sarah’s house, and she has a peach tree, and we found a few furry globes hiding under the leaves, just waiting to be picked and devoured. Sarah has a basil plant too, so I decided to pinch a few leaves and add them to the filling. It’s a lovely combination, peaches and basil: the basil is sweet, in its own way, and sharply grassy against the yielding sugary tartness of the peaches. Cover the whole thing with crumbles of biscuit dough, and you’ve got a sophisticated twist on a homey classic.

There’s one optional step here: it’s up to you whether or not to peel the peaches. It’s not totally onerous, but it does require a little extra maneuvering. The peaches get X-slashed at the bottom, then blanched in boiling water and shocked in an ice bath. After their trip from hot to cold, the peach skins slip off effortlessly, like a satin robe. I don’t mind the extra work, personally, since it feels more like performing a magic trick than cooking. But the whole process is totally optional, if you don’t mind bits of skin in your filling. And, of course, if you wanted to skip the bother and make this any time of year, you could easily use frozen thawed peaches instead.

Please. Ignore the photo. Instead, imagine a heap of peach basil cobbler on a plate, still warm from the oven, with a scoop of slowly-melting vanilla ice cream on top. Not much that’s better than that.

peach basil cobbler

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Moroccan stuffed tomatoes

It’s high tomato season, and I’m conflicted. This is the time of year when the raw tomato is king, when every shape and size of tomato is juicy and soft, when the heat rolls through in waves and the stove sits neglected. But I just can’t do it. I can’t enjoy tomatoes raw. To me, the texture is unpleasant, the taste sickly. Unless they’re exquisitely soft and heirloom, or cherry-sized and picked straight off the vine, I can barely choke them down.

So if I’m eating tomatoes–even height-of-summer tomatoes–they’ve got to be cooked. And for me, there’s no better way than the oven. Baked or roasted, tomatoes suddenly go from can’t-do to can’t-get-enough. The dry heat-bath of the oven takes them from watery to wrinkled, from tart to saucy-sweet. Even less-than-stellar tomatoes become summery treats when handled this way. So on the Fourth of July, when my neighborhood itself felt like the inside of an oven, I decided to suck it up, turn on the beast, and stuff some tomatoes.

The filling here is Moroccan-inspired: almost-caramelized onions, grated zucchini, fresh parsley, a pinprick of chili and thyme, fragrant nubs of toasted pistachio. It makes for a gorgeous contrast, these crayon-red tomatoes and their green-on-green filling. Where many stuffed tomatoes are bready and dense, these are light and fall-apart tender. In the oven, the filling relaxes and settles into the tomatoes; the tomatoes themselves slump but stay deceptively whole, until you touch them and realize the walls have turned to jelly. Oh, and fresh parsley on top is definitely not optional–the contrast between roasted and fresh herb flavor kind of makes the dish.

I brought these tomatoes to a potluck, nestled snugly in a Pyrex dish. They sat tucked away in a corner, all homely and humble next to peanut noodles and berry shortcake and good French bread and several different kinds of pie. I was sure they’d be completely outshined. And yet, fifteen minutes into the party, they were the first thing to disappear. Not bad for a vegetable-on-vegetable.

zucchini stuffed tomatoes landscape

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Chicken and plum stir-fry

The day I raided the plum tree, I asked a few kitchen-inclined friends for suggestions on what to do with them. There were the usual recommendations–freeze them, jam them, bake them in pie–but then my friend Sandy threw me a curveball. “Stir-fry,” he said.

So I stir-fried. And I’m very glad I did.

It might sound odd to put stone fruit in a stir-fry. But it really works. Think of it as a fresh summer spin on the sweet-and-sour thing. Toss a few wedges of plum into a hot pan at the last minute, and they slump and half-melt into the sauce, adding pockets of jammy sweetness to an otherwise savory jumble. Some of the skins come loose, draping chicken and vegetables with a thin tart bite. The juices filter into every crevice, coating the vegetables and pooling thickly in the bottom of the pan. (More on that later.) It’s not quite like any other stir-fry I’ve ever made, and not coincidentally, I think it’s the best one I’ve ever made.

Part of the reason this stir-fry is so good is the plums; part of it is the chicken. There’s a trick to this, which Chinese restaurants use to keep meat–especially lean, easily-overcooked meat like chicken breast–juicy and tender. It’s called velveting, and it’s the only way I’ll stir-fry meat from now on. First, the sliced meat is marinated in a foamy slurry of egg white, cornstarch, and rice wine. Then it’s par-cooked in boiling water, drained, and finished off in the stir-fry pan. I don’t know what kind of sorcery takes place between the marinating bowl and the water pot; all I know is that it produced the plumpest, softest, most luxurious chicken breast meat that’s ever come out of my kitchen. The meat fairly glistened in the pan–you can see it in the photo below. This is one of those instances where taking the extra step is extraordinarily worth it, even if it means dirtying an extra bowl and pot.

I’m normally too lazy to cook rice for stir-fries, but I’ll make an exception here: you must serve this with rice. The reason for this is the plum juices, which filter to the bottom of the pan and thicken over the heat. Then there’s a simple hoisin sauce mixture, which mingles with the plum juices to form a soft purple sauce, rich and oozing, but without the gumminess of starch. The flavor is deeply plummy, a little salty, a little sweet, a little spicy. You’ll want to mop up every last purple streak of it. Trust me.

chicken plum stir-fry

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Spiced plum butter

I have been swimming in plums recently. My friend Sarah’s tree started dropping ripe plums right before she went on vacation, so Sam and I went over and helped her clear out the branches. We were allowed to keep whatever we picked; within a few minutes we’d collected a paper grocery bag full of tiny red-fleshed fruit. The past couple weeks have been all about putting them to use.

A fair number of the plums got eaten straight from the bag, standing over the sink to catch the juices. I set a few aside for a cooking experiment I’ll write about later; a few more went into a riff on my favorite nectarine tart (verdict: plums need way more sugar than nectarines). That left me with about two pounds of quickly softening plums, a small canning pot, and–thanks to the BART shutdown–a lazy work-from-home afternoon. So I ignored the heat outside, turned on the oven, and made plum butter.

Fruit butters are a slightly different animal than jam–pureed smooth, softer and less jelly-like than jam, made for spreading rather than dolloping. Think applesauce, but richer, darker, thicker, in every way more so. The recipe I found calls for roasting, rather than boiling, the fruit; after an overnight soak in sugar and spices, the plums went into a heavy pot and then into the oven, where they slumped and wrinkled and filled my little apartment with hot syrupy perfume. From there, it was just a matter of pureeing the fruit to baby-food smoothness, and ladling it into hot prepared jars for the water bath.

In the jars, the plum butter is inky purple-black, the color of the blended-in skins; when I scraped up the dregs from the pot onto a spoon, it glowed translucent red. The flavor is concentrated plum, sweet from the flesh and tart from the skins, brightened with orange zest and prickly with cinnamon and cloves. I will be spreading it on popovers the first chance I get; I could easily imagine filling a cake or topping a scone with it, and even possibly using it as a sweet plum sauce on poultry. Well done, little plums. Well done.

spiced plum butter

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Chard avocado salad and pickled chard stems

I’ve always thought of chard as a winter food, but that’s not strictly true. Even now, in the sticky heat of July, chard is everywhere at the farmer’s market, all vibrantly colored and adorably bunched. So I decided to play around with chard as a summer vegetable, and stumbled on a couple surprisingly grill-friendly side dishes. With Fourth of July coming around the bend, these would definitely be welcome at any barbecue.

First, a salad. I stole this idea from my friend Isabel, who uses mashed avocado and lemon juice as a dressing for thinly sliced kale. I’m not a huge fan of raw kale, but wondered whether something similar might work with chard instead. The answer is a resounding yes: the buttery avocado smooths the bitterness of the raw greens, mellowing them into something soft and juicy and oddly addictive. Add a few flecks of sweet shallot and a little spicy raw garlic, and you’ve got a killer salad. It’s like a fresher, lighter version of the braised collard greens that so often sit alongside good Southern barbecue. In fact, Sam and I agreed that this would be fantastic as a side to a hunk of grilled meat.

This is a little more involved than your average salad, because it involves massaging the greens. I’d never done this before, and I’ll grant you, it feels a little odd: you coat the chopped greens with a glug of oil, and then knead them aggressively with your hands until they start to break down and soften. It really is like massaging, in a way–imagine you’re giving someone a deep-tissue shoulder rub, but that someone happens to be a bowl of greens. After a few minutes of kneading, the greens turn slippery and soft, and lose a lot of their initial bitterness. They start to taste like salad greens, juicy and dark and just a touch bitter. It seems like a fussy step, but it really does make the difference between inedible health-food salad and creamy, delicious summer-in-a-bowl salad.

Oh, and if you don’t want to use chard, kale would of course work here–as would collard greens, for that matter.

chard avocado salad

Once the salad was consumed, I had a handful of bright red stems left over. I’m a sucker for using the whole chard, and I’ve been craving pickles something fierce. So the stems got thinly sliced into matchsticks, then tossed with a bunch of similarly-cut scallions. I decided to flavor this batch of pickles with garlic, thyme, tarragon, and bay, so those went into the bottom of a jar. Then I packed the jar with stems and scallions, poured over a simple brine, and popped on a lid. In a couple of hours, I had some seriously addictive fridge pickles.

These are a little unusual-tasting, but they’re terrific. The chard stems are fibrous and crisp, like celery, with a faint beetlike sweetness that plays perfectly with the puckery brine. The scallions lose their harshness but keep their quiet oniony essence. The herbs are subtle but pervasive, so that every bite is infused with woodsy flavor. I could easily imagine these scattered over a hot dog or sausage, or even as an accompaniment to a big greasy cheeseburger.

The one slight bummer is that the pickles don’t stay pretty for long; over the course of a few days, the chard slowly gives up most of its color to the brine. For red chard, that means you’ll end up with pale pink pickles in a red brine. They’ll still taste great, though.

pickled chard stems and scallions

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