Why do peaches hate me?

I’m not sure what I did to anger peaches, but they are pissed at me. So are nectarines, cherries, and plums. They reveal their animosity whenever I nibble at their deliciously fat selves by making my lips and tongue swell up. I can handle the Barbara Hershey-in-Beaches lips, the unbearable itchiness less so.

My doctor tells me that I’m not allergic to stone fruit, per se, but to the trees they grow on. I’m not sure why this difference is even worth the breath to point it out, since the result is that in the summer months I just have to find my fruity goodness elsewhere. But when the farmer’s markets are teeming with plump stone fruit and the general public is gaily dabbing at their peach juice-dabbled chins, I am ridden with jealousy, driven crazy with desire. Must. Eat. Peaches.

Alas, all is not lost. Once cooked, I can gorge myself silly on summer’s finest. The aforementioned doctor says that cooking the fruit kills whatever enzyme I’m allergic to. So, I’m resigned to a life eating drippy peaches and cherries poached and grilled and sautéed, or in crisps and cobblers and pies. There are worse fates.

As a result, I’ve become quite the exceptional Cobbler and Crisper, if I do say so myself (bring it on Bobby Flay!). This variation was inspired by some rosemary shortbread I made last year; I was a little shocked at how amazing the rosemary + butter + sugar combo is, and adding peaches just furthered the deliciousness quotient. I find peeling the peaches unnecessary, but if you’re in the mood for excessive, useless work, then feel free to add that step. The pine-y rosemary adds a light, herbal note to the crisp, making this fabulously easy dessert kind of impressive and pretty unbeatable.

The peaches, they may be angry. But I will make them love me.

Peach Rosemary Crisp
Serves 6

8-10 ripe peaches, depending on your topping-to-fruit ratio preference
2 Tbsp. creme de cassis (optional)
5 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into bits
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1 Tbsp. fresh, minced rosemary

1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Cut peaches in half and remove pits (the riper they are, the easier this will be. but the firmer they are, the better they'll hold their shape.) Cut peach halves into bite-size 1" pieces.

2. Spray an 8"x8" pan with nonstick cooking spray. Toss the peaches and the creme de cassis together, in the pan, and pat them down to a relatively even layer.

3. Put the butter, brown sugar, flour, oatmeal, and rosemary into a medium bowl and, using your hands, pinch the butter into the other ingredients, until it's all evenly combined and has a crumbly texture. Top the peaches with the delicious crumbly-ness.

4. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm, topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato.


Maybe math doesn’t suck.

It’s been a rocky road for math and me. We had a tense relationship from fractions through the algebra years. Integers didn’t help and it got really ugly during my head-spinning foray into geometry. The Pythagorean theorem still makes me break out in hives. But it’s been a long time. Math and I have grown up a bit and developed a cordial truce, based pretty much on salad.

If you’re unsure of the correlation between math and salad, you obviously make as lousy and unbalanced a vinaigrette as I used to. Vinaigrette is one of those cooking cornerstones mastered on the first day of culinary school before tackling weightier subjects, like ice. But not having been to culinary school, or ever really put much thought into it, I spent years combining vinaigrette ingredients in random proportions, completely unaware of the disservice I was doing my greens.

And then math stepped in.

The basic ratio for a good vinaigrette is one part vinegar to three parts oil. If you’re using a particularly strong vinegar or something else highly acidic, like lemon juice, it’ll probably taste more balanced at one part vinegar to four parts oil. Those ratios, 1:3 and 1:4, aren't advanced math, but you can't deny their mathness.

Get your oil to acid ratio right and you can futz with flavors like shallots, herbs, garlic, and sugar. Dijon mustard is a great flavoring and it’ll help your oil and vinegar emulsify (but that’s science. My relationship with science is still a little shaky, so let’s not go there).

Once you see the math-powered light, the horizons of vinaigrette expand beyond salad greens. It's fantastic drizzled onto grilled or roasted meats, just before serving, and tossed with vegetables, beans, and grains (or any combination thereof.) As a mayo replacement, vinaigrette makes a less expected pasta or potato salad and an interesting sandwich condiment. This Basil Vinaigrette, a variation on a Bon Appetit recipe, ranks tops in the official Best Bite Kitchen, and I've used it for all of the above. It’s great tossed with sweet summer corn and tomatoes (as in the snappy photo).

Thank you, sweet, sweet math. I'm glad we stuck it out.

Basil Vinaigrette

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 scant Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. packed light brown sugar
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Blitz all ingredients through olive oil, with a hand-blender or food processor, until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste and then get your serve on.


Who knew?

I can make white rice and brown rice and jasmine rice and risotto. I can make fried rice, wild rice, forbidden black rice, and Bhutanese red rice. But, apparently, I can not make Uncle Ben’s instant rice:

This is the result of following Uncle Ben's directions to a T. Perhaps Uncle Ben enjoys his rice in a single solid rubbery clump. Or perhaps this is the result of my failing as a cook. But the theory that makes the most sense is that this is just a crap product, masterminded by mad scientists who have sent Uncle Ben to bed early and taken over his kitchen to see whether or not we're stupid enough to believe that rice was meant to be instant. Yeah, we're stupid enough.


A Creative Review

Since I spend my non-blog life as a copywriter, I’m also a copy-reader. I read the copy on ads. I read the copy on websites. I read the copy on the mouthwash, the high-performance sports beverage, the whole-grain pitas, and the imported tomato chutney. Someone wrote that copy, so they deserve the respect of a proper read. Or at least a desultory scan. Sometimes, the copy is even worth reading.

The copy I’ve been looking forward to reading most though, is the copy on the back of my beloved Vosges Haut Chocolat’s new bacon studded chocolate bar. Seeing that copy firsthand would mean I’d finally managed to scare up one of these hard-to-find pork-flecked lovelies. So, when I eventually got my hands on one, I dove into the copy, anticipating the chocolately, bacony goodness that lurked within. The copy promised “a deep milk chocolate with bits and pieces of Applewood smoked bacon and just a sprinkling of Alder salt.” Ah, love at first read. I tore into the silver foil.

Yes, the chocolate is milky and deep.

Yes, the Applewood smoked bacon appears as bits and pieces.

But when I got to the salt, I ran into some issues with the copy. This copywriter clearly has a different definition of “just a sprinkling” than the one I‘m familiar with. There is more than just a sprinkling. There is a generous dousing.

I’m not going to claim heartbreak; Vosges does a decent job of elevating a decidedly Homer Simpson-y combination to a much more sophisticated level. But the salt/bacon proportions are too out of whack to make the bacon bar crave-able. The first thing you taste is that rich, creamy, Vosges milk chocolate. The second thing you taste is crunchy grains of salt. That's also the third thing you taste. The bacon is just a minor note that pops in at the end. Definitely disappointing, since bacon, not salt, gets top billing in the product name. It even ranks higher in the copy. And the ingredients list. But I can't blame the copywriter entirely. If the packaging were rewritten more honestly, I'm not sure Mo’s Salt Bar (with just a sprinkling of bacon) would take the marketplace by storm.

Mo's Bacon Bar just hints at the loving relationship chocolate and bacon can have. It's worth sampling, if you've never tried these two great tastes together. Just try not to read the copy.


Some Recent Best Bites

There’s a lot of food in this world and I intend to taste all of it. And, hopefully, share the best best-bites with you. In order for a restaurant dish to earn a place on the Recent Best Bite Roster, it must be an exciting taste sensation that’s reasonably do-able at home. My hope is that maybe these restaurant best-bites will inspire you to use ingredients you may be familiar with in a new way or try something new altogether.

Here’s a quick sampling of what and where some of my favorite tastes du jour are.

The Grady @ Willie’s Dawgs – Who needs a new spin when you can do an old classic really well? This new Brooklyn joint has a menu-ful of variations on hotdogs and toppings, and the Grady epitomizes sloppy, All-American, frankfurter goodness. It’s an all beef hotdog, topped with grilled peppers, caramelized onions, jalapenos, mustard, mayo, and ketchup on a homemade Challah roll. If you can wrap your lips around a best bite of this, you’re in for a treat. The sweetness of the onions and the peppers balance the smoky dog and the other condiments. The mayo lends a nice creaminess. The Challah roll is nice, but it mostly acts as a vehicle to transport the ingredients from the foil wrapper to your mouth, which is not a bad thing at all. The Willie (dawg wrapped with bacon and cheddar on a Challah roll) is also swoon-worthy, but how much can a girl write about bacon?

Albondigas @ Las Ramblas - We ate a lot of really nice things at this tapas place in Manhattan, but this was my favorite do-it-yourself-able dish. The albondigas, a tasty Catalan take on the meatball, is full of roasted garlic and manchego and nestled lovingly in a creamy oregano dressing. The meatballs were flavorful and seasoned perfectly and the oregano dressing is a not-so-subtle hint that perhaps oregano has a higher calling than backup singer in tomato sauce.

Bruschetta @ Morandi – Bruschetta refers to the toasted bread, not necessarily the topping of tomatoes that we usually think of. And the folks at Morandi are doing an excellent bruschetta variation: toasty bread, hot off the grill, with fresh ricotta, pine nuts, and honey. It was an excellent starter, but it would make for a lovely, not-too-sweet dessert as well. I just loved the simple combination that coalesced into a taste greater than the sum of its parts. I suppose you could argue that assembling this one at home is more about knowing how to shop, then to cook, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. Mostly because my mouth would be too full.

That's the best and brightest of what I've been stuffing my face with. Let me know if you have a recommendation and I'll add it to my "Must-Bite" list!


Virginia T. Habeeb To The Rescue!

We’re getting a jump start on summer’s dog days this year. Not even halfway through July and New York City has completed its annual transformation into the fetid stew it normally reserves for August. My curls have erupted into a frizzy halo and, while I fantasize about this kind of weather in January when the mercury strains to climb into the teens, it’s really kind of unbearable outside.

When it gets this bad, I can’t even contemplate cooking. No stove. No oven. Even the microwave’s pushing it. This is where Virginia T. Habeeb comes in. I know Virginia T. Habeeb probably about as well as you do, which is to say not at all. But a recipe for Shrimp with Avocado-Sesame Sauce, from her Pita the Great, turned up when I was rifling through Fresh Direct’s recipe archive a few months back and I’ve fallen in love with her mix of shrimp, avocado, and tahini. It’s turned up on our dinner table several times since then, getting slightly tweaked along the way, but always (hopefully) staying true to Virginia T. Habeeb’s vision.

Shrimp with Avocado-Sesame sauce makes for excellent weeknight grub, since it’s really more mixing than cooking, and can be assembled while listening to the opening credits of most hour-long legal dramas. Tahini is a Middle Eastern paste made up of ground sesame seeds, that’s usually in hummus or baba ghanoush. But Virginia T. Habeeb really stumbled onto a winner when she combined the nutty flavor of tahini with sweet shrimp and creamy avocado, and the addition of lemon juice and parsley emphasize the Middle Eastern flair. Virginia T. Habeeb’s original recipe was slightly different; she didn’t include onion or tomatoes and she left the shrimp whole. But whether you do it up Best-Bite stylee or take the Habeeb route, this an interesting twist on standard salad fare and an excellent light meal.

Thank you, Virginia T. Habeeb, for providing just what I needed, when the mere thought of the kitchen was giving me prickly heat. And I hope you'll write and tell me what the T stands for.

Shrimp with Avocado-Sesame Sauce

Adapted from Virginia T. Habeeb’s Pita the Great
Serves 4

1 medium ripe avocado, peeled and mashed
3 tablespoons tahini
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh lemon juice or more, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons water
1 1/2 pounds cooked medium shrimp
½ cup finely chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
¼ cup finely diced Vidalia or other sweet onion
1 head romaine lettuce
4 whole-wheat pitas, cut into wedges

1. Mix the avocado, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl; add water gradually (up to 4 tablespoons) until the mixture is of a thick pouring consistency. Taste to correct seasonings.

2. Chop shrimp into bite size chunks and toss with parsley, tomatoes, and onion. Add dressing and mix to coat.

3. Divide romaine evenly among plates and top with generous spoonfuls of shrimp. Serve with pita wedges.


Roving Kitchen Reporter, #3

I like to think of myself as something of an everyday gourmet. My whole schtick is that it takes only a quarter ounce of extra effort to make a meal exceptional, whether you’re whipping up a speedy weeknight meal or a painstakingly planned dinner party. I adore fresh and seasonal food. I love glamming up macaroni and cheese (try using a rich nutty cheese like Brebis Ossau) or burgers (add roasted garlic and chopped fresh sage to the meat) or salads (bake tablespoon size mounds of grated parmeggiano reggiano at 350-degrees on a greased cookie sheet for 5-minutes. Peel crisps off and top salad with them).

But I have a secret. A deep, dark, horrible secret.

And, secret, thy name is processed cheese food powder. It’s my personal Kryptonite. Whenever I’m near Cheetos, some strangely powerful, alien force overtakes me. My vision goes blurry. The world around me fades. Voices sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons. And, when I snap out of it, my fingernails are stained bright orange and I scramble to hide the empty bag. It’s like Sybil, if the abusive mother were replaced with trans-fats.

I can’t even be in the same room as a bowl of wonderfully artificial Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I delight in its fluorescence. I try to fight these inclinations, taking the gastronomic high ground, but an internal struggle rages: is it possible to reconcile my admiration for Thomas Keller and Alice Waters with my dark, deep longing for cultured milk solids?

Oogie’s Gourmet Popcorn is a step in the right direction. The folks at Oogie’s are bridging the gap between epicurean delight and cheese-flavored trash with seven varieties of popcorn, including “Sundried Tomato and Parmesan”, “Asiago and Cracked Pepper” and “Smoked Gouda.” My favorite is the “Romano and Pesto”, a tasty snack that smacks of basil and is physically impossible to stop eating, if you're not turned off by green popcorn.

I suspect the “epicurean delight” part of it, the part of it that makes me feel like I’m not eating crap, is limited to the use of words like “gourmet,” “cracked pepper,” and “smoked”. “All natural” helps too. It’s just the right combination of ingredients and copy required to appease my addiction. The chowhound in me isn’t humiliated to be seen in public, mowing through a bag of the stuff. And my dark-side is sated by the addictively tangy, powdered goodness that coats every fluffy kernel.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Oogie is just an enabler. Once I'm elbow deep in the bag, I suppose there’s nothing dignified about it. It’s cheese-flavored popcorn. Really good cheese flavored popcorn. But the label says "gourmet," and that's good enough for me.


Is it worth it?

Cooking is a lot of work. It’s exhausting. It’s not even so much the cooking part that’s exhausting, it’s all the damn prep work: devise a menu, put together a shopping list, gather the ingredients, and peel, chop, mince, and dice until you’re about to pass out. And then, start cooking. Of course, this begs the question: is it worth it?

This is the thought that plagued me as I contemplated Michael Symon’s recipes for corn crepes and barbecue sauce. Dainty corn-based crepes stuffed with barbecue-doused chicken seemed like the ideal 4th of July meal, the perfect nod to both American food and my every-meal-has-gourmet-potential ideal. The kind of paean our forefathers deserve.

For a fraction of a second, I contemplated getting a manicure instead. But, as usual, my food-love beat the pants off my pampering-love, and I got started on my shopping and chopping. These two recipes aren’t hugely complicated, but they can be time consuming, especially since you can only make one crepe at a time and I was doubling the recipe for a crowd (I suppose technically you can do more than one at a time, but my crepe skills have only been honed so far.) They both have long ingredient lists that require some up-front prep. Add that to the appetizer, side, and dessert I was also planning and it was one long, exhausting day.

As I was nearing the end of the cooking, around the time the guests were due to arrive, I was zonked. Why do I do this to myself? Maybe they can eat, and I can just go to bed. I hope they clean up and lock the door behind them.

But the food, ah, the food. Thin, slightly sweet, honey colored crepes held the shredded meat of a store-bought rotisserie chicken (my one concession to biting off more than I can chew), both dressed with spoonfuls of perfectly tangy barbecue sauce. The kind of meal that John Hancock and the boys could have really used, after a tough day of independence declaring.

And when my guests were cheerfully tucking into platefuls, when I scooped up the first fantastic bite myself, I was just bursting with accomplishment. I love cooking and I love feeding people. It gives me the warm fuzzies. So yes, it is worth it. But it’ll be even more worth it when I can hire a staff of prep cooks to do the peeling, chopping, and mincing for me.

(NOTE: Both recipes by Michael Symon courtesy of The Soul of a Chef)

Corn Crepes

1/2 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
4 oz. milk
1 tsp. corn oil
1/4 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup scallion, chopped

1. Puree all ingredients in food processor until combined.

2. Pour a tsp. of oil onto a small hot saute pan. Ladle in 2oz. of batter and let cook until lightly browned, 2-3 minutes. Flip crepe, cooking for another minute. Cool on rack. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

BBQ Sauce

1 Tbsp. butter
1 cup chopped red onion
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. minced jalapeno
1/2 cup espresso beans, mashed with the flat side of a knife (I put them in a Ziploc bag and gave them a good whack with a mallet.)
4 oz. Worcestershire
4 oz. tomato paste
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
1 oz. balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 oz. apple cider
4 oz. veal stock
1 Tbsp. chile powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander

1. Melt butter in saucepan and sweat onion, garlic, and jalapeno.

2. Add remaining ingredients and cook on very low heat for an hour. Push sauce through strainer to remove solids.

To Serve: wrap two ounces of shredded chicken and a tablespoon of sauce in each crepe. Heat for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven, or until heated through. Garnish with more barbecue sauce and sour cream.

Happy July 5th!

Holidays just up the blog-induced stress ante. I love sharing my culinary adventures with you, truly I do, but after spending July 4th cooking myself silly and then playing Dazzling Hostess, it was all I could do to drag my ever-expanding tuchas onto our plush pillowtop mattress and pass out, let alone plunk myself down in front of the computer and start blogging. So, here’s a brief recap of our July 4th menu, with recipes, photos, and general patriotic merriment to follow. Much thanks to our forefathers for providing yet another excellent reason to cook.

- Hummus + pita chips: homemade hummus is simple to make and a lot tastier than most of the store-bought stuff available. Just chuck some chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil in a blender and whizz it up. Fold in a handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley and you’re good to go.

- Corn Crepes + Barbecue Chicken: I’ve never made barbecue sauce before, and I wanted to see if it was worth the effort. The results were excellent. The sauce and the corn crepes are from Michael Symon, of Cleveland’s Lola. He fills the crepes with duck confit; I went for the much thriftier roast chicken.

- Broccoli Slaw: A cool, crispy counterpoint to the crepes and tangy barbecue sauce, spiked with lots of fresh cilantro and a touch of celery seed.

- Berries with Fresh Ricotta & Crème de Cassis: Sounds oh-so-fancy-pants, but it couldn’t possible be easier. Whip a couple of tablespoons of crème de cassis into about 16oz of fresh ricotta, chill to set, and dollop generously on fresh berries.

I promise to share more details, as soon as the pictures are downloaded and I can free myself from this mountain of advertising that needs writing.


Just Try It.

For some reason, I feel pressure to make you like the foods you think you don’t like. I’m convinced that if you don’t like rhubarb, you’ve never had well-prepared rhubarb or if curry isn’t your thing, then you’ve just not tried the right one. And I will serve you perfectly prepared rhubarb and exquisitely executed curry and the sun will break through the clouds and beam great epiphanic rays upon your head and your life will change forever and I’ll be able to take all the credit for it.

I’m not sure why it’s so important to me that you like rhubarb and curry (or tapioca or tomatoes or avocado). There are things I don’t like (olives and black licorice) and, no matter how many times I try them, the old taste buds still aren’t having it. So if I haven’t been able to change my black licorice or olives tune, I’m not sure why I’m so convinced I can make Carolyn see the joy in beets (Come on, Carolyn. They’re sweet, they’re hot pink, they go with every outfit. What’s not to like?).

Nick gets stuck with the “just try it” treatment the most. He’s lucky he’s not a picky eater, so there aren’t too many things I can foist unwillingly upon him. But there is zucchini. I cleverly infiltrated it into dinner the other night with my Zucchini Basil Muffins, but why-oh-why doesn’t he appreciate the crispy, green summer squash full on? Has zucchini wronged him in some way? Did zucchini boil his bunny?

I am determined. I will show Nick the zucchini light.

And I will do it with Zucchini Carpaccio, the latest trend in the fast-paced zucchini-sphere. Recipes for Zucchini Carpaccio have popped up in cooking doyenne Patricia Well’s latest book, in unbearably adorable Parisian blogger Clotilde Dusoulier’s new book, in Gourmet, and on the Food Network. The recipes are variations on the same concept: thinly sliced raw zucchini marinated in a vinaigrette and sprinkled with some salty cheese for balance. Perhaps this kind of unadulterated zucchini exposure is what Nick’s been missing.

Zucchini Carpaccio is simple enough to wing, sans recipe. I sliced up a zucchini, as thinly as my below-par knife skills allow (I really need a mandoline.) Drizzled it with a lemon vinaigrette and scattered some salty, Greek feta and red onion slices across the top. A 15 minute steep in the vinaigrette later, I presented my beloved husband with my beloved vegetable.

The verdict? He liked it. He ate the whole plateful and said, “I liked it.” Now, I’m not fooling myself, I know that “I liked it” isn’t swooning with undying passion. But I’m making headway. Even if I still don’t like licorice.

Zucchini Carpaccio
Serves 2, as a light main course

1 medium zucchini, sliced as thinking as your knife skills (or mandoline) allow
2 oz. fresh feta
a few slivers of red onion, to taste
1 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. sugar
¼ tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Lay the zucchini slices out on two plates. Scatter the feta and red onion across them.

2. Whisk together the next five ingredients and drizzle over the zucchini. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 15-20 minutes. Before serving, add a few grinds of black pepper to each plate.