Sunday, June 28, 2009

Peaches and... Pork?

In my Midwestern upbringing, mixing meat and fruit is something most people never even consider. Fruit is relegated to breakfast, desserts, or snacks (with an occasional fruit salad thrown in for a side at a picnic). Meat is a main dish, usually served with potatoes or rice and sometimes an iceberg lettuce salad. The combination of juicy, ripe fruit and salty cured meat is not earth-shattering in some cultures, but in my family it would have been considered simply strange. As you can imagine, this Ohio-raised girl will never forget the first time she experienced the classic Italian duo of melon and prosciutto.

I was studying abroad in Rome during my third year of college, and had exposure to many things one doesn’t necessarily see every day in the Midwest (it’ll take a few glasses of wine to get those stories out of me though!). One night, my group dined at a restaurant near our pensione that specialized in different kinds of meat – grilled, roasted, braised, smoked and cured, with practically any species considered fair game. This made tough eating for the vegetarians in the group, but the rest of us loved the feast. One of the appetizers they served was a platter of almost over-ripe golden cantaloupe slices, wrapped loosely in paper-thin mauve prosciutto that was rimmed with creamy white fat. It was visually stunning, but the tastes and textures were enough to stop us all in our tracks. It was an explosion of intensely sweet juice from the soft cantaloupe flesh, followed by the unmistakably porky and slightly toothy prosciutto impregnated with tiny salt crystals that crunched lightly between our teeth. They complimented each other perfectly in their contrasts, the way any good relationship does; the melon made the prosciutto seem saltier and the pork made the cantaloupe taste sweeter.

The star of this weekend's farmer’s market were the succulent, perfect peaches that have just begun hit their seasonal peak. I bought about half a dozen from Frog Hollow and tried them in various dishes the rest of the day. Lunch was my favorite, by far. While at the Ferry Building I also picked up a crusty sweet rustic baguette from Acme, sweet sheep’s milk ricotta from Cowgirl Creamery, and a few slices of prosciutto from Golden Gate Meat Company. When I got home, I sliced the baguette on the bias and spread a spoonful of the ricotta on the bread. The ricotta was fresh and delicious but its role was to contribute an almost-creamy texture to the dish, as its delicate flavor was slightly overpowered by the concentrated sweetness of the golden peach wedges nestled into the bed of white cheese. I added a light crack of black pepper then topped the sandwich with a blanket of salty prosciutto sliced so thinly it was almost transparent. It was immensely satisfying, and the swine kindly played second fiddle to allow the peaches to show off the lush juices they’ve been working so hard on all year.
For dinner that night, the peaches played a part in a simple appetizer. I had bookmarked a recipe from last year’s July issue of Food & Wine that also called for the delicous combination of pork and fruit; peach slices and a basil leaf wrapped in thinly-sliced pancetta. The delightful little packages crisped on the stovetop in a touch of olive oil and received a drizzle of aged balsamic to finish. The texture of the crispy pork was a nice contrast to the ripe peach, but in this case the pancetta was not so willing to step aside and let the fruit steal the show. The peppery pork overpowered the peach and the balsamic competed for our taste buds’ attention. The dish was distracted rather than complex, but I would certainly not call it a failure as it still featured amazing ingredients cooked perfectly.

Dessert ended with peaches and cream, a combination more familiar to the folks back home. I lightly whipped fresh cream (also purchased at Cowgirl) with dark brown sugar and a touch of vanilla. You might think that one would get sick of peaches after featuring them in three dishes in one day, but I can honestly say that was not the case! They were so perfectly ripe, that I wish I would have saved one to snack on right now...oh well, it’s time to move on to the apricots and plums!

Peaches and Prosciutto

1 slice of high-quality, crusty bread
1 heaping tablespoon of ricotta
½ perfectly ripe peach, sliced into ½ inch wedges
1 slice of paper-thin prosciutto
Black pepper
Spread the ricotta on the bread. Layer the peaches on, add a crack of freshly ground black pepper. Top with the prosciutto. Enjoy!
Add basil or arugula.
Add a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top of the peaches.
Use Serrano ham instead of prosciutto.
Use cantaloupe or strawberries instead of the peaches.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fantastic Foodie Day - Part Two

Food is almost a religion in the Bay Area, so after my morning worship at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market (where I picked up these vibrant flowers) it was time to pay homage to the site where the Book of Locavore from the Foodie Bible was written. We celebrated my twenty-something birthday at Chez Panisse (a lady never reveals her age!).

The food is undeniably amazing, but the building that houses the restaurant is one of the most charming parts of the experience. It is an amazing example of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement was an artistic response against the rise of Industrialism and championed a return to craftsmanship. The connection between these architectural and culinary ideals are central to the full experience; Chez Panisse and Alice Water's relevance comes not only from a strong stance on eating locally and sustainably but also as a long-time advocate for homemade, family meals, standing in opposition to the rise of fast food.

The menu was an absolute bounty of late-spring and early-summer produce from start to finish. This post is not meant to be a restaurant review, so I won't get into each dish. Just know that there are not enough superlatives to describe the Wild Alaskan king salmon, and the term "onion ring" is not acceptable as a label for the grilled duck breast's garnish (perfectly crisp, salty exterior and tender, sweet interior). The pictures don't do the food justice as the low lighting prevented anything of higher quality, but I hope this gives you an idea of the loveliness of the meal.
Asparagus vinaigrette with chopped egg and pancetta

Wild Alaskan king salmon a l'unilateral with nasturtiums

Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast with new garlic and fava bean puree, green beans, and onion rings

Bittersweet chocolate fondant with Bing cherry ice cream

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fantastic Foodie Day - June

San Francisco in June is usually very…unlike June, at least in most of the country. It’s foggy, overcast, windy and cold. Saturday, however, was in the high 60s and sunny with a light breeze; it was the perfect day for a trip to the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building and the start to a great foodie day that culminated in my birthday dinner at Chez Panisse (post to come!).

This is my favorite time of year for the market. Summer produce is on its way in; the strawberries are ripe and ruby red through and through. The cherries are bursting with dark, sweet juice. The tomatoes and peaches are about to come into their own. There are still remnants of spring produce, as garlic and onion lovers search for the last tender baby bulbs. Citrus fruits and asparagus are being pushed out by stone fruits, peas and corn.

I would never call myself a salad person. I’m a devout carnivore and while I have nothing against vegetables, I prefer to reserve nibbling on lettuce for Peter Cottontail and his siblings. This bias may come from the fact that my childhood version of lettuce consisted entirely of the iceberg variety – watery and flavorless. The greens at the market are amazingly diverse in shape and flavor. There are sweet, bitter and spicy greens for salads, braises and purees. For some reason, the warm weather and sunshine prompted me to purchase a mixture of greens for a salad.

Irresistibly sweet strawberries and lemony flat-leaf parsley combined with the bitter greens…this was shaping up to be a delicious salad. Something was missing though – something salty. My last stop was to head inside the Ferry Building to Cowgirl Creamery. Goat cheese was too predictable and too insubstantial, but crumbly, toothier feta cheese made with goat’s milk would still have the salty tang I was looking and would also hold up in a salad.

When I got home and put together the salad, I realized that the crisp greens weren’t enough to satisfy my need for something crunchy. My last addition was a handful of toasted almond slices leftover from a recent baking experiment. Topped off with a drizzle of aged balsamic vinaigrette then finished with a few grinds of fresh pepper, this salad was a delicious and refreshing combination of flavors and textures. It was sweet, salty, slightly bitter and mildly acidic.

June Farmer’s Market Salad

I decided not to include quantities in the recipe. Not because I’m lazy, but so that you can adjust the proportions to your preference. My own salad was more about the strawberries and cheese than the greens!

· Fresh, ripe strawberries, quartered
· Salad greens – I suggest a mixture of bitter and sweet greens (arugula, mesclun, mizuna, frisée etc.)
· Goat’s milk feta cheese, crumbled
· Flat leaf parsley leaves, picked from the stem
· Toasted sliced almonds
· Aged balsamic lightly whisked with olive oil, salt and pepper (I personally prefer to not emulsify my vinaigrettes)

Toss the greens and parsley with ½ of the dressing, add more vinaigrette and salt/pepper to taste. Top with strawberries, cheese, and almonds. Enjoy! This would be great with a glass of rosé on a hot summer day.