Who flipped the switch? After weeks of height-of-summer salads and cookies suddenly here we are, plunged into nights when you need a jacket. I grilled a dozen ears of corn last Thursday, alone at home, nursing a scotch on our deck in the dark, except when I raised the lid of our grill …
Local Massachusetts peaches seem increasingly old-fashioned to me, meaning that you make a mess when you eat one (unless a nearby vendor gives you slices) and while they taste sweet they also have a faint counterpoint of tartness. This makes them the ideal companion for salty prosciutto. I suppose we could have left it at that, but we also had a raft of mint and some pistachios, so Jody upped the ante with a pistachio-mint pesto that doesn’t require much more than a quick buzz in the food processor. Fresh mozzarella makes it a sumptuous enough to stand in for lunch, if that’s where’s you want to go. You’ll also be relieved to know that local cherry tomatoes, now at their spectacular peak, don’t require peeling. This is the easiest antipasto you’ll even encounter, especially on a hot day when instead of cooking all you want to do is savor the last days of summer.
When September rolls around in New England home cooks can look a little grim at the prospect of dealing with too much. Too much zucchini, too many tomatoes, too much corn. Your CSA, your friends, or your own garden runs amok, filling your fridge and kitchen counter with ever more too much of a good thing. This year a new offender for us, prune plums. And a time crunch. Too little time + too much fruit = Plum Cookies. In more relaxed times we’ve made jam, or a plum cake. We might finally get to Sophie James’s Sautéed Plums with Dark Chocolate Pudding and Crushed Amaretti Cookies, but not today. Nope. Just these buttery little flying saucers hoving into view with sugary purple pilots.
Three or four summers ago I was standing in water up to my knees on a sandbar known as Horseshoe Shoal in the middle of Barnstable Harbor, that long shark-shaped body of water that swims between the shores of Sandy Neck to the north and the town of Barnstable to the south on Cape Cod. As I watched, a flock of seabirds raced down the channel that passes between the sandbar and Sandy Neck. The birds swooped and cried, strafing a line across the water with their beaks as precise as a squadron of P-51 Mustangs. Then I saw it, a deep slate discoloration below the channel surface, an undulating gray movement that fragmented into hundreds of individual fish as it flashed by me. I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Small boats stopped in the channel, people rising to stand, hands shading eyes. “Blues!” a man cried, waving and pointing. It was August and the bluefish were running. For anglers and eaters on Cape Cod, only striped bass equal the pleasures of bluefish. Stripers taste more delicate, but bluefish fight harder. This week’s dish: Bluefish with Dukkah, Tomatoes and Garlic Yogurt.
Making Summer Berries with Sabayon is about as easy as dessert gets. The only thing easier would be to eat the berries with nothing, or just whipped cream. But then you wouldn’t get the texture of sabayon, one of the cooking world’s great miracles–cooked eggs that have been prevented from forming curds. Sabayon is foamy, yet substantive. It can stand on its own as a dessert and offers a great medium for sweet or fortified wine, which is why it’s often made with Marsala. Plus, if you’re feeling Italian, rather than French, you can say you just whipped up a batch of zabaglione (s/zaa-bal-YOH-nee), which to my ear sounds like something Willy Wonka eats for breakfast on holidays.
I had to bite my tongue while Jody prepared this week’s Tomato Salad with Tuna Tapenade. The photographer in me was dying to speak up: Don’t you want to sneak a little preserved lemon into that? Some extra visual pop? Truth be told, my wife has always been a member of the “flavor first ” camp, with visual appeal a distant second. And we use preserved lemons in everything, so this week we’re giving tomatoes a turn, and tapenade. Is anything more summery than the crazy quilt of tomatoes just ripening in New England, along with an herby tapenade, basil and olive oil? If you’ve never sat down at a table with tapenade because you’re afraid it might once have dated an anchovy, then fear not. As Jody explains in her notes, this tuna tapenade’s for you.
Menus from proximate restaurants in rural France can seem eerily similar, as though all aligned along the same invisible lines of culinary force emanating from the specialties of the region. This restaurant has fois gras; that restaurant has fois gras. This restaurant offers grilled duck breast; that restaurant offers grilled duck breast. Whether you find this state of affairs delightful or vexing depends on your perspective. If I were living in the same village for several months then menu similarity might start to get tedious, but in the Sud-Ouest, that lower left corner of France heading toward Spain, I had no problem with encountering a familiar selection of fois gras, duck and rabbit, accompanied by eggplant and tomatoes, not to mention the incredible local dessert pastry, Pastis de Quercy, the subject of a future post. I enjoy fois gras, but I love duck. For me, duck has more there there than any other animal protein. I’d give up beef in two quacks if I had to choose between it and duck. Legs, breast, liver – no matter. It’s all great to me. You can make up your own mind with our Grilled Duck with Peaches entrée this week. You can also eliminate the potentially irksome challenge of cooking duck inside, dealing with the fat. We cook it outside. On the grill.
Finding gravlax in the south of France is a bit disconcerting, like strolling through an open air market and seeing a vendor in full Viking regalia hawking cured fish among his competitors’ stands of sausage, nougat, and sour cherries. But there it was, gravlax, an appetizer goody that arrived at our table one night to prime the pump before the serious business of the main course–eating duck–began. Thin slices of cured salmon with a beautiful fringe tinted the color of roses. Rich, buttery salmon, a hint of beet, of dill and gorgeous color. None of us could remember the last time we had gravlax, but it had been awhile. Wouldn’t it be great for picnic? Gravlax with a Beet Cure packed among the dark bread, cheese and fruit tarts? Especially with a few cucumbers and some fermented European butter spread on the dark bread before layering on the samon? Of course it would.
A phrase you will never see: Big bold summer squash flavor! Nope. Which is why I’ll take my warm weather squash raw, as in this Summer Squash Salad with Purple Basil Vinaigrette. Very thinly sliced, please, so I can appreciate the mild flavor and crunchy texture, ideally accented by a summery dressing, like the basil vinaigrette that tops this preparation. Throw in a few slices of good parmiggiano and I’m in heaven. And nobody even turned on the oven.
Fat. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Fat’s probably the best place to begin a discussion of Chicken Rillettes with Preserved Lemon and Summer Savory. Au debut, as the French say, in the beginning, rillettes meant one thing – pork. Or rather, pork and fat. Rillettes was pork that had been salted, cooked slowly in pork fat, shredded, then preserved in the same fat, and served at room temperature, usually spread on toast. Rillettes* are now found all over France, and while pork is still popular, in the Southwest, the Midi-Pyrenees, extending down to the Spanish border, the technique is more often seen with duck or rabbit. Today rillettes of salmon, tuna or other fatty fish, or even mushrooms are not uncommon on pricey menus. It’s hard to argue with that–what doesn’t taste good when cooked slowly in fat and salt?