Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.
~Alice Walker

August is National Peach Month.

Prunus persica, a deciduous tree which bears an edible juicy fruit, was first cultivated in China several thousand years ago. Peach trees are considered the trees of life in their native land where peaches are symbols of immortality and unity. Peaches traveled west via the silk road to Persia, earning them their botanical name. Peaches belong to the genus Prunus which includes the cherry and plum, all from the Rosaceae family. Once discovered by Alexander the Great, they were introduced to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Romans referred to the peach as malum persicum (Persian apple), which later became the French pêche, which then morphed into the English word peach. Spanish explorers initially brought peaches from Asia to the New World as the fruit could be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Columbus brought peach trees to America on his second and third voyages. The French introduced the fruit to Louisiana while the English imported them to Jamestown and Massachusetts colonies.

While there are over 700 varieties, the two basic types of cultivated peaches are clingstone (the flesh sticks to the stone) and freestone (the stone easily separates from the flesh). They can have yellow or white flesh, which is sweeter and less acidic than its more traditional golden counterpart. The downy skin of the peach is splotched with red hues and are usually round with a pointed end, but they can also be flat and disc-shaped. The donut peach, which is flat with rounded sides that draw in toward an indented center, like a doughnut without a hole, is a descendant of the flat Chinese peach.

Even though farmers’ markets are now flooded with this divine fruit, in a couple months a good peach will be hard to find as they are distinctly seasonal. These efficient reproducers are harvested in late summer and early fall because they tend to ripen simultaneously. Peaches are pruned after most of the other fruit crops are done since they can be injured if pruned too early. It is unusually difficult to ship this fruit as microbes like fungi and bacteria can invade the thin, permeable outer skin and feast on the sugars inside, causing decay. Bruising can occur while handling and travelling. Storage also creates issues with delicate peaches. Unlike apples which can be stored up to a year in a low oxygen controlled environment, finicky peaches have a much shortened lifespan.

So, get it while you can — make good of this narrow windowed season and buy these luscious local gems, sink your teeth into the sweet fuzz and let those ambrosial juices freely dribble down your chin. Grin knowingly, then repeat.

Peaches should be stored at room temperature as refrigeration curtails flavor and fragrance. They are climacteric, meaning they that have high respiration rates during ripening and emit large amounts of ethylene gas, so the fruit will continue ripening after harvest. A large peach has fewer than 70 calories, contains 3 grams of fiber, and is also a good source of vitamins A and C.

By now, it must be quite obvious that I love the far from banal rustic nature of crisps. Below is a peach version followed by a basic grilled peach recipe.  At the end is a simple concotion of chilled wine and peaches.

PEACH CRISP

5 large ripe peaches, pitted, peeled (or not) and sliced
Juice from 1 lemon

3 T all-purpose flour
1/4 C tightly packed brown sugar
1 T granulated sugar
1 T raw sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
Slight pinch of sea salt

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C raw sugar
1 1/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Toss the peaches in a large bowl with lemon juice. Add flour, sugars, vanilla and salt and gently stir to combine. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, sugars, and butter. Using a pastry blender or fingers, blend ingredients until coarse meal forms — soft, tender and workable.

Spread the peach filling in a medium baking dish or casserole and loosely sprinkle with the topping. Place the dish on a sheet tray and bake crisp 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Bake crisp until fruit is tender and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

GRILLED PEACHES

1/2 C honey
3 T Balsamic vinegar
1 t vanilla extract

6 firm, ripe peaches, pitted and halved

Crème fraîche or plain yogurt, for drizzling

Whisk  together honey, balsamic vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl.

Prepare barbecue grill to medium high. Brush fruit generously with some honey glaze. Grill (inner flesh side down first) until heated through, about 3 minutes on the first side and less on the other, depending on ripeness. The idea is to create nice markings on the fleshy inside, but to have the fruit retain its integrity. Arrange grilled halves, cut side up, on plates or platter, then immediately drizzle with some more honey glaze. Ladle crème fraîche or yogurt over the grilled fruit to your liking.

Pourboire:  try a classic Italian libation during the warm months.  First pit, then slice a few ripe fresh peaches, with or without the skin (your preference).  Drop the sliced peaches into a cold glass pitcher and pour in enough medium to full-bodied red wine to cover the fruit.  Allow to chill for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.  Pour the wine and peaches into glasses and serve.  Cin-cin!

Advertisements

Lentils & Walnuts

June 14, 2012

God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
~Franz Kafka

Not to be confused with other nuts or wingnuts…those outspoken, irrational people with deeply ingrained, deranged, flagrantly ignorant political beliefs, e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, Fred Phelps and their ilk. The lunatic fringe.

Rather, walnuts are edible seeds harvested from deciduous trees of the genus Juglans, especially the Persian walnut a/k/a English walnut, Juglans regia. Walnuts are rounded, single-seeded stone fruits enclosed in a leathery green, fleshy, inedible husk. Inside the husk is the wrinkly, hard walnut shell, which encloses that kind kernel, which presents as two halves separated by a partition. Walnuts, like all seeds, are living organs which respirate. After harvest, the seeds continually consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide, so storage is crucial.

The common walnut is native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia, extending from western China, into the ranges of Nepal, through present day Afghanistan and Iran, and finally Turkey. Alexander the Great introduced the tree to Greece and Macedonia, so it became known as the Persian nut. Later, ancient Romans imported the walnut tree into nearby conquered lands, such as Gaul and Brittania, where it has thrived since. Some espouse that North American walnuts assumed the moniker English walnuts, since they arrived in the colonies aboard English merchant ships.

The potential health benefits of walnuts cannot be understated — abounding with nutrients, particularly proteins, vitamin E, and essential fatty and phenolic acids, tannins, and flavonoids. They are also rich sources of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. A so-called superfood.

LENTILS & WALNUTS

2 C green lentils (preferably du Puy)
1 1/2 C cold water
2 C vegetable or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
3 fresh thyme sprigs

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Splash of sherry or red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Walnut oil, to taste
3/4 C walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
3/4 C artisanal chèvre (goat cheese), crumbled

Put the lentils in a medium, heavy saucepan with the bay leaf and thyme. Pour over water and stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. If the liquid is not totally absorbed, simply drain off any excess through a fine colander. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprigs.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat and sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic for another 1 minute, then deglaze the pan with just a splash of sherry vinegar. Remove from heat. Toss the cooked lentils with the onion mixture, and then season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with walnut oil, add the walnuts, toss with crumbled goat cheese and serve warm.

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.
~Mahatma Gandhi

These finger wielded morsels, carved from a lamb loin rack are sometimes dubbed “lollipops” especially when the bones are frenched (i.e., when the meat on the long bone ends is resected). At this house, the debate rages whether or not to french as some serious next-to-the-bone cooks and eats are discarded in favor of the look. Wasteful of the tasteful, to me. Others rightfully differ and prefer degloved–the chops do appear more elegant. Kitchen diplomacy is ever at work.

LAMB CHOPS WITH PORT, FIG & BALSAMIC

1 rack of lamb, evenly cut into single chops
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 T thyme leaves, minced

2 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 rosemary sprigs

1/2 C ruby port
3 T chicken stock
1/4 C fine Provençal red fig preserves
1-2 T aged balsamic vinegar of Modena

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Season lamb with salt, pepper and thyme. In a large, heavy sauté pan, add the olive oil, butter, garlic and rosemary sprigs and heat over medium high until simmering. But, do not brown the butter or garlic. Remove and discard garlic and rosemary then add lamb chops and sauté until browned some and just medium rare, about 3 minutes per side. Remove lamb chops from heat and tent with foil.

Increase heat, add port to pan and reduce some scraping and stirring with a wooden spatula. Then add chicken stock and reduce further, occasionally stirring. Moderate heat throughout to maintain a lively simmer. Whisk in preserves first until dissolved and then balsamic vinegar, cooking and stirring until reduced to a saucy consistency which nicely coats both sides of the spoon or spatula. As needed, season the sauce with salt and pepper to your liking.

Briefly re-introduce lamb chops to pan and turn to coat with sauce and heat some.

Serve arranged on platter, drizzle with pan reduction and garnish with just a few fresh rosemary sprigs.

Pourboire: alternatively, you can briefly grill the lamb chops at the outset, dropping rosemary sprigs onto the hot coals. On the back end, consider a light touch of chopped toasted pistachios and chiffonaded fresh mint as garnishes in lieu of the rosemary sprigs.

Eve, Duck & Figs

September 23, 2011

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.
~Oscar Wilde

Call me old school. I am not yet converted to the phenomenon of e-books, and may never be. This by no means criticizes Kindles and kin nor exalts ecologically unfriendly hardbacks. Opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of both have been voiced ad nauseum. For now, I cannot deny myself the pure almost childlike pleasure of feeling a book in my hands—adoring the cover art, peering under the dust jacket, feeling the spine, ever so gently cracking the book, reading the title page and dedication, caressing the paper stock, leafing throughout the book—then hunkering down and raptly savoring, sometimes tackling, each page of prose while admiring the font, fondling each turn with tactile pleasure, sensing the slight whisper of air as each page settles down snuggled against its mates, memorizing the last page read, closing the unfinished volume softly, and shelving it until we next meet. A blissful seduction. The affair ends in time but is sometimes rekindled.

Banned Book Week, which celebrates free and open access to text and denounces book censorship gets underway this weekend. Underscored are the intellectual freedoms that come from candidly sharing information and expressing thoughts, however unorthodox, and the looming dangers of literary restriction. For whatever flimsy social-political-religious excuse, banning a book is cowardly.

In Eve’s Diary, Mark Twain wryly interpreted the biblical fable of Adam and Eve replete with illustrations depicting Eve frolicking and lounging in Eden. The artist, Lester Ralph, chose to show Eve as she was described in the Bible—naked and comfortable in her skin. While there were no fig leaves, his drawings were far from prurient or lascivious, with her pubis mostly obscured and always rendered sexless. Nothing more and likely less than the typical T&A that had adorned art for centuries beforehand. (A young Picasso had already been penning openly erotic images by the time of Eve’s Diary.) Nevertheless, in 1906 the Bible beating board of trustees at the Charlton Public Library (MA) shamefully claimed outrage and voted to ban the book, removing it from the shelves. Oh, the horror of the female body. The excommunication by this gutless trio comprised of the town clerk, a minister and an undertaker was ridiculed far and wide at the time. Their sinister actions were not reversed until just this year when the current library board voted to put Twain’s porn back into circulation.

In a letter to a friend, penned under S.L. Clemens, the esteemed author bristled: “But the truth is when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

ROAST DUCK WITH FIGS, BALSAMIC & PORT

1 duck (3-4 lbs), liver reserved & trimmings (neck, heart,
wing tips) chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dried thyme

12 fresh figs, halved
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into diagonal slices
2 medium shallots, peeled and cut into thick slices
4 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 C balsamic vinegar

2 T honey
4 T balsamic vinegar
1/2+ C port wine
4 T unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 425 F

Remove the fatty glands from the upper side of the bird’s tail. Season the duck inside the cavity and out with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Place the liver in the duck and truss neatly with string so it will retain shape. Place the duck on one side in a large heavy roasting pan with a rack, and set it in the oven with the breast side facing toward the back. Roast, uncovered for 10 minutes. Turn the duck on the opposite side and roast for 10 minutes more. Turn the duck on its back and roast for 10 minutes more.

Remove the roasting pan and strew the chopped trimmings, figs (cut side up), garlic, carrot, shallot, and thyme under and around the duck. Cut and remove the trussing string. Return the pan to the oven and roast the duck for about 13-15 minutes per pound. (The time varies according to bird size—with more time per pound for a smaller duck, less time per pound time for a larger duck.) Using a bulb or large spoon, baste several times with pan juices while roasting. During the last 15 minutes, baste with some balsamic as well.

The duck is done to medium rare if the juices from the fattest part of the thigh run faintly rosy when the skin is pricked, and when the duck is lifted and drained, the last drops of juice from the vent are pale rose. The duck is well done when the juices run pale yellow.

Once done, transfer the duck to a platter or cutting board which is propped up at one end at an angle with breast side down and tail in the air so gravity draws the juices into the succulent breasts. Tent and allow to rest.

Carefully remove the figs and set aside covered in a serving bowl for later. Return the roasting pan to the stove with the trimmings over high heat. Cook until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Partly drain and mostly discard the liquid in the pan. Deglaze with several tablespoons of balsamic and honey for about 2 minutes, then add port and simmer for 5 minutes more.

Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve place over a new sauce pan, pressing down on the trimmings. Also add any juices that have drained from the duck as it was resting nearby. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, and add another couple of tablespoons of balsamic, and reduce. Remove from the heat and add the chilled butter, a few pieces at a time, whisking so that the butter slightly thickens the sauce.

Carve the duck and arrange on plates. Spoon some sauce over, adorn with reserved figs, and serve.

The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.
~Mark Twain

The delicious fig has often borne the burden of negative connotation. Fig leaf even carries a pejorative metaphorical sense of covering up behaviors or thangs that are embarrassing or shameful…the implication being that the cover is merely a token gesture and the reality of what lies underneath is all too obvious. Who can forget the biblical tale of Adam and Eve strategically covering their god given genitals in that original act of christian expurgation? Of course, none of us ever deigned to imagine what lurked beneath those leaves.

Prim and proper, yet highly skilled and insanely face paced, badminton now wants to lift the proverbial fig leaf some. The sport is engulfed in a controversy incited by an officially sanctioned dress code. In a effort to revive flagging interest, the World Federation has mandated that elite women must now wear more revealing skirts or dresses as many now compete in shorts or baggy tracksuit pants. In a typical “sex sells” approach, the Federation in conjunction with the marketing firm Octagon has decided that more flesh translates into a larger following. “We’re not trying to use sex to promote the sport, we just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular,” naïvely remarked a deputy president of the Federation to the New York Times. It comes as little surprise that the Badminton World Federation is male dominated.

The reaction to requiring more skin while not universal has been almost zealously critical. Those offended who seek to have the rule abolished simply argue that the governing body of a sport decreeing a “less is better” clothing code for women smacks of overt sexism. Seems a point well made. Perhaps the governing board should compel male shuttlecockers to be barechested in speedos and women to be adorned in skimpy tops and thongs—now that would draw some throngs.

It just seems clothing optional should be a personal choice.

FIG COMPOTE

1/2 C turbinado (raw) sugar
1/2 C unprocessed local honey
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 t vanilla extract
2 C cold water

2 C dried black mission or mediterranean figs, stemmed and halved

1+ C premium balsamico di Modena

Place the sugar, honey, lemon zest, vanilla and water in a small saucepan over moderately low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Put the figs in a medium bowl, pour the syrup over the figs and allow to cool for about 4 hours.

Drain and discard the syrup, then put the figs in an airtight container and add enough balsamic vinegar to cover well. Cover and refrigerate for another 4 hours.

Serve over a fine ice cream of choice or topped with marscapone or freshly whipped cream—even gracing pork or lamb dishes.

P.S. The BWF announced Sunday that it was scrapping the rule that would have forced women to wear skirts or dresses in elite competition.

Smooth skins hued from deep purple to violet white, and bodies styled from pleasingly plump to gracefully slender, eggplants always bare tender, creamy flesh inside.

Though commonly thought of as a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit, and specifically a berry. Eggplants belong to the Solanaceae plant family, commonly known as nightshades, and are kinsfolk with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. Eggplants have nothing to do with eggs other than their oblong shape which spurred their ovular name. Other cultures favored the term aubergine which is derived from the Sanskrit meaning “to cure wind disorder,” since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence. The Sanskrit word vatinganah was somehow morphed to badingan by the Persians, then al-badinjan by the Arabs, alberengena by the Spanish, and finally aubergine by the French.

Native to India in wild form, eggplants were later cultivated in China around 500 B.C. The fruit was then introduced to the Mediterranean basin and Africa. Italy’s ardent affair with eggplant began in the 14th century. Myths persisted that eating eggplant caused insanity, not to mention leprosy and bad breath, which explains why eggplant was often used solely for decoration in many homes. Thankfully, so far I have at least avoided leprosy.

The Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata is a poster child for food’s mottled history. An alluring triangular island smack dab in the middle of Meditteranean trade routes, Sicily has been conquered over centuries by the likes of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Germans, French, and Spaniards. Through all this rape, pillage and survival, Sicilians subtly borrowed along the way to engender a cradle of singular cuisine. But, it comes as no surprise that the origins of caponata are disputed.

Some say caponata is of Spanish descent, derived from the Catalan word caponada, a similar relish. Others emphasize that the root word, capón, a type of fish, suggest it was prepared with fish as in capón de galera which is a form of gazpacho served shipboard. Another school claims that the dish had to be a mariner’s breakfast because of the vinegar, which may have acted as a preservative. A final, yet less accepted, theory is that the word derives from the Latin word caupo (tavern) where cauponae was served—a form of gastropub for ancient travelers.

Caponata is protean, having as many versions as uses. Antipasto, contorno, bruschetta, pasta, frittata, paninis, with fish, atop grilled meats, etc.

CAPONATA ALLA SICILIANA

Extra virgin olive oil
3 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 T red chile pepper flakes

2-3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 T capers, drained, rinsed and dried
1/3 C green olives, such as cerignola, pitted and chopped
2 T pine nuts
2 T currants
2 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T balsamic vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t premier unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T tomato paste

Fresh mint, stemmed and chopped
Red chile pepper flakes

In a heavy pot or large sauce pan, pour in olive oil until about 2 1/2″ deep. Heat over medium high heat and bring the temperature to about 300 F. You can drop small pieces of eggplant or bread in the oil and when it starts bubbling vigorously, it is ready. Add the eggplant and cook, until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked eggplant to paper towels and drain.

Meanwhile, in a deep, sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil to medium high, add the onions, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, pine nuts, currants and thyme. Stir some and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and tomato paste, add to pan, and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked eggplant, and continue to cook at a simmer until heated, about 2 more minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with mint and a pinch of chile flakes.

Pourboire:  consider dribbling caponata on bruschetta slices.

The pen was put to rest for due cause. The delay since my last posting has been far from a case of writer’s cramp. Instead, my eldest, the bona fide chef of the family, was found to have a pernicious and rare lung carcinoid which necessitated a harrowing open surgery followed by a rather lengthy and agonizing hospital stay in LA. The tumor had been insidiously residing within him for several years before becoming symptomatic. As much as he tried to avoid it, the surgeon had to get medieval on his ass, leaving him with a shark bite sized incision emblazoned on his chest. Excruciating pain became a way of life for him. And now, recuperation is ongoing and long term. But, I have faith that with time his inertia will be restored, regained and will not wane.

While there is no need to belabor the details, suffice it to say the entire process has been an ordeal for all and a living nightmare for him. As parents, these somber, reflective times have been a tumult of chaotic ideas and sensations…the stuff that makes your fingernails and toenails ache.

Above all—and I mean above all—thank you dear friends and family for your benevolent, unflagging support.

The only silver lining in these dark skies was fortuitously tripping across a recently opened local LA trattoria (or perhaps osteria), Della Terra Restaurant. Affable and urbane, Della Terra also exudes that rustic but often elusive Tuscan simplicity. I already miss the preamble olives, oranges and flatbread, to make no mention of the scrumptious brick oven grilled pizza. Della Terra will no doubt soon make it on “must go” lists in sprawling tinseltown. Thank you Franco, Michael, Gerry, Renato (and the back of the house) for your gracious hospitality and eloquent eats during troubled times. To say your service was accommodating would be a gross understatement. Never once did I enter the door without a warm handshake and hearing—“How is your son?”

As you will be serving Sunday brunch in the near future, I humbly offer this radicchio with eggs & proscuitto fare as a thought and a means of thanks.

GRILLED RADICCHIO WITH EGGS & PROSCUITTO (RADICCHIO CON UOVA E PROSCUITTO)

3 heads radicchio, any imperfect outer leaves removed and quartered
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, minced
1/2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
Freshly ground black pepper

1 T unsalted butter
4 large eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 lb. (Parma or San Daniele), cut into thin julienne
1/4 lb. shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar

4 large eggs, hard boiled and finely chopped
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

Whisk together olive oil, herbs and pepper.

Prepare barbeque grill to medium high heat or use grill pan heated to medium high on stove top. Brush radicchio quarters with herbed olive oil, then arrange on grill or grill pan. Cook on each side for approximately 2-3 minutes per side. You are looking to achieve slightly wilted edges. Once cooled to room temperature, roughly cut into strips.

In a large bowl, combine the radicchio, prosciutto, walnuts, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper, to taste, and toss well to coat.

Then, in a large heavy non stick pan, heat 1 tablespoon of butter over high heat until it foams and subsides. Crack 2 egg into the pan and cook, sunny side up, seasoning with salt and pepper and removing to a plate as they finish cooking. Repeat this process with the remaining 2 eggs and butter.

Divide the salad evenly among plates and top each serving with a sunny side up egg and a hard boiled, finely chopped egg and a light grating of parmigiano-reggiano.