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We’re having a great summer for peaches. While a few months ago, newspapers were predicting a peachless year because of devastating winter crop losses in Georgia and South Carolina, that’s not the case here in the northeast. Peaches from southern New Jersey are plump, plentiful, fragrant, and sweet. Here’s a recent batch at my favorite greenmarket peach purveyor, Kernan Farms.
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I can’t pass by the stand without picking up a few. And since some of these beauties weigh three quarters of a pound, I find myself with a lot of rapidly ripening fruit that needs to be done something with.
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This is far from a problem from Beloved Spouse’s point of view: He happily consumes the peach pie, peach cake, peach cobbler, peach bread pudding, baked peaches, and peach jam that I make for him.

Browsing my cookbooks for another “peach something” to add to my tool kit, I came upon a recipe called Rustic Fruit Focaccia in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Now, focaccia is usually a savory bread (such as I wrote about here) but, as Michele explains, in Tuscany in autumn they make this flat bread with a topping of ripe wine grapes. She also says it’s good with other fruits too, such as peaches. Well, just the thing!

The dough for this focaccia isn’t kneaded at all: You simply stir together flour, sugar, salt, yeast, olive oil, and water until it becomes a rough ball. I suppose that’s what makes it “rustic.”

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The dough rises once in the bowl, then is spread out thinly over a shallow rectangular baking pan and rises again. While it was doing that, I was peeling and slicing peaches.
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The illustration in the book shows a focaccia topped with nectarines and blueberries. That looked good, but I had some raspberries in the refrigerator, so I dotted them on the dough along with the peaches, sprinkled a little sugar over it all, and baked it in a moderate oven for about half an hour.
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The edges of my focaccia crisped and browned just as they ought, but my fruit was so juicy that the central bread part of the crust didn’t. Still, it was fully baked and had risen about as much as expected. So I took it out of the oven, let it partially cool on a rack, and cut pieces for a week-night dinner dessert.
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This is definitely not a very sweet confection. Michele says she likes it mostly for breakfast or afternoon tea. We were happy enough with it in the evening, especially with a veil of powdered sugar. It made a nice, light, crunchy fruit dessert. But I agree that its true destiny is as a breakfast or midday treat, which is how we promptly devoured the whole rest of the focaccia. By midwinter, we’ll be longing for fresh fruit flavors like this.

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In the immortal words of Nellie Forbush, I’m as corny as Kansas in August! – only in my case it’s the vegetable I mean. It’s high corn season in my greenmarket now, and I’m reveling in it.

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One day recently a Washington Post article called “Easy, Delicious Recipes for Sweet Summer Corn” gave me some new ideas for using my favorite summer vegetable. The first one that caught my interest was a corn soufflé recipe. The article’s headnote praises the recipe for eliminating “the stumbling blocks in making a soufflé – beating separate egg whites, cooking a base sauce, the anxiety of it not rising.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I didn’t see how a soufflé could rise without egg whites beaten into peaks, but maybe there was something to be learned here. I’d try it for a dinner for two. I gathered my ingredients – fresh corn, poblano pepper, gruyère cheese, eggs, half-and-half, salt, pepper, and chives. (Forgot to put the chives in the picture.) That seemed like a tasty combination; despite my doubts we were off to a good start.
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The recipe wanted all the ingredients to be pureed in a blender, but that quantity would have filled my cranky old blender so high that at first pulse it would’ve shot liquid out past the lid. I used my food processor instead.
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The recipe recommended baking the mixture in individual half- or one-cup ramekins or in a larger four-cup dish. For our dinner first courses I always bake individual soufflés in two-cup porcelain molds, so that’s what I used, even though this was a recipe for four persons.
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With no need for last-minute preparation and addition of fragile aerated egg whites, I was able to do all this hours in advance, putting the molds in the refrigerator until nearly dinner time. Then I baked them for about half an hour at 400°. They puffed up somewhat, but barely to the rims of the dishes. Nothing magic had happened.
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They began to deflate instantly, before I could even get the camera to them, and by the time they made it to the dinner table, they had sunken much further. We tasted them skeptically. Surprise: They were quite good. Beautifully corny, rich and dense, with a subtle blending of the poblano, chives, and cheese flavors. They had become a creamy, nubbly, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, very enjoyable summery whole. But they were not soufflés.

The whole point of a soufflé is lightness. What we had here were savory vegetable custards, much like crustless quiche. They were rich and very filling: Even though we liked them, neither of us could finish more than half our portion. No wonder the recipe called for small ramekins!

The newspaper’s recipe was lightly adapted from one in the book Heart and Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin, the celebrity chef, TV personality, and prolific cookbook author. I knew he had a reputation as a popularizer, but I’m still surprised that a professional cook – and a Frenchman to boot – would say something is a soufflé when it absolutely is not. He did, though: I checked his own recipe online, and that’s what he calls it.

I think that’s a disservice to people who don’t know what a soufflé really is, as well as to anyone who makes the recipe expecting it to produce real soufflés. However, at least the dish is a respectable one of its kind and a very pleasant use for high-summer corn.

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Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

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While the dishes named in the title above are linked by “and,” I hasten to assure you they weren’t eaten together. I made them as appetizers for two of Beloved Spouse’s culinary specialties, which he’d made within a short span of days: Louisiana shrimp remoulade to eat before gumbo and Mexican melted cheese before chili.

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Tom makes terrific oyster and sausage okra gumbos, one version of which I’ve written admiringly about here. For his latest rendition, it fell to me to prepare a worthy, but not overwhelming, first course. I chose a shrimp remoulade recipe from the Junior League of New Orleans’ Plantation Cookbook. The only shrimp remoulade I’d ever made before was a very elaborate version from Galatoire’s restaurant. This one was simpler: its remoulade sauce has only 9 ingredients, compared to Galatoire’s 12.

All the ingredients went into my mini food processor, which quickly converted chopped onion, chopped scallion, pressed garlic, grainy mustard, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, cayenne, and paprika into a nubbly sauce. That went into the refrigerator overnight to integrate and develop its flavors. The next evening, to precede our gumbo, I arranged cold boiled shrimp on beds of shredded lettuce and topped them with the sauce.
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The remoulade wasn’t bad, and it complemented the shrimp well enough, but to our taste it wasn’t truly great, either. It was very acidic. That may be my fault, because the recipe called for tarragon vinegar and what I had was my own wine vinegar, which is very concentrated. I probably should have used less of it, or thinned it a little with water. Also, there was a lot more mustard in the mix, compared to Galatoire’s version, where the sharpness of the mustard is tempered by tomato puree and ketchup. So unless and until our palates want a really pungent shrimp remoulade, I guess I’ll revert to Galatoire’s version.

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A few days later, Tom made his Santa Maria Pinquito chili. He’s always tinkering with the details of his recipe, but he always uses those small, flavorful pinquito beans that we get from Rancho Gordo. And since he’s constitutionally incapable of making a small quantity of chili, we had to invite a few chili-loving friends to come and share it with us.

I’d planned to have guacamole and chips with aperitifs in the living room, so I needed something small to serve at the table before bringing on the main attraction. I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook for his queso fundido con rajas y chorizo, which I’d made successfully before. A dish of melted cheese with strips of roasted poblano pepper and crumbled chorizo is fairly hefty for an appetizer, but I made only very small portions.

Working alongside the chili chef in the kitchen, I made my advance preparations for the cheese dish. I roasted, peeled, seeded, and sliced a poblano chili into strips, which I sauteed along with some sliced onion. Next I peeled, chopped, and separately sauteed Mexican chorizo. And I cut Monterey Jack cheese into ½ inch cubes.

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Near serving time I put a pan of small, empty gratin dishes in a 375° oven. When they were hot, I spread the cheese cubes in them and returned them to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese was just bubbling. I took out the pan, strewed the pepper-onion mixture and the chorizo on the cheese, and put the pan back into oven for a final five minutes.
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Served with warm flour tortillas for scooping up the melted mixture, the queso fundido was a big hit with everyone. The combination of cheese, sausage, and vegetable flavors somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I must make this simple, satisfying dish more often!
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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

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byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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