Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Holding On

Whoa!!! Did I see my southern friends post photos last week on Facebook of their kids going back to school?! WTF?! It's the middle of August?! Since when did the buzzkill guillotine cut off summer while we're still in the thick of it? Well, I'm in the thick of fog actually, but there are times in the day when I see the sunshine. Everyone keeps telling me to wait until September when apparently summer arrives in San Francisco. We do have plenty of amazing summer produce so at least it tastes like summer to me. 

A quintessential summer dish in my book is a caprese salad. Done right, this timeless combination of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil is more than the sum of its parts. But every component counts, so you've got to find really good stuff or it's a little depressing—no better than the tomatoes you find in the grocery store in January. And while I like a good classic, I often find myself drawn to push the envelop—just a tad. One of my favorite summer fruits is the nectarine, and I thought it might be a nice add to a traditional caprese. And then since I hate my electric stove, I thought I'd expand it even further and make a full dinner caprese highlighting some of summer's best bounty. 

Actually, as I type this, I realize one could argue it's not a caprese at all. Just because a dish has tomato, mozzarella and basil in it doesn't automatically make it a caprese. It's like the people who rate recipes on cooking sites and they give the recipe "4 forks" but then proceed to tell you that they completely changed every ingredient in the recipe. Ummm, yeah, bozo, that's not even the same recipe so how can you even rate it? 

Given that, I guess I'm better off stating that this dish was perhaps inspired by the caprese salad. But this version has been bulked up to make it a legit dinner. And even if you don't hate your stove like I do, but are just feeling lazy or it's too hot to cook where you are (damn you), then this is your ticket. 

You do start with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, and then I added fresh corn cut off the cob, rotisserie chicken, arugula and my beloved nectarines. You could get crazy and shake up the caprese world even more by substituting any combination of bacon, prosciutto, peaches, roasted red peppers, roasted zucchini, burrata, mint or even tarragon. Drizzled with some good olive oil and lots of fresh ground pepper and salt, you've got a guaranteed winner. 

Even though kids are starting to head back to school, you've still got some weeks left before the stone fruit disappears. Here are a few nectarine tips you may appreciate: 
  • Go for freckles. Sun spots on nectarines are a sign of sweetness. 
  • Take a whiff. Choose fruit that is fragrant and has a little give or is only moderately firm. 
  • Don't chill. For the fullest flavor and juiciest fruit, store nectarines at room temperature, slightly apart, until they yield slightly to the touch. Then put them in the refrigerator. 
  • Know your colors. White nectarines are sweet and delicate and perfect served fresh in desserts. Yellow ones are brighter and richer flavored and can be served raw or cooked in sweet or savory dishes. And there is no need to remove the skin when cooking, unlike peaches. 
And hurry the hell up, September!  

Summer's Bounty Caprese Salad

1 pint cherry tomatoes (or 1.5 lb heirloom tomatoes)
3 ripe nectarines
8 oz fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese
corn cut from 1 ear
2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken
4-6 oz arugula (or other lettuce)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (purple or green)
handful fresh mint, chopped
1 Tbsp champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp white balsamic (traditional can work too)
3 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
Fresh salt and pepper to taste

1. Whisk together vinegars, oil, mustard, salt and pepper. 
2. Slice tomatoes and nectarines, and tear burrata or mozzarella into chunks. Add to large bowl with corn, shredded chicken, and arugula. Drizzle dressing on top, mix and add salt and pepper to taste. 
3. Turn onto a large platter and scatter basil and mint on top. Add more salt and pepper if needed. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Year of the Horse/Summer of Corn Soup

While 2014 is the Year of the Horse, it must be the Summer of Corn Soup. I've been eating out a lot this summer. A. Lot. And corn soup seems to be in high rotation on the restaurant scene. I'm not complaining. If you're all about farm to table and using seasonal ingredients (which seems de rigueur with many chefs these days), then corn soup makes total sense given corn's availability and sweetness during this time of year.

I happen to really like corn soup. Maybe it reminds me a little bit of the creamed corn of my youth. It was one veggie I gladly heaped on my plate. Probably because it was almost dessert-like, resembling some type of savory yet slightly sweet pudding. Cornbread in the south typically has no sugar in it. While I like that, especially dunked in a cup of milk, I'm secretly partial to the "cornbread" I find in restaurants outside of the south or from boxes sold in the grocery store. My grandmother calls that sweet cake. You can call it anything you want and I will eat it by the pan. This is coming from the girl who prefers eating yellow cake mix raw rather than cooked, so it really isn't all that surprising that I like corn soup.

I've actually become a little obsessive about it. I anxiously await the presentation of the menu at a restaurant and make a visual bee line to the appetizer section hoping, with bated breath, to see corn soup listed. More often than not it is, but the successful manifestation of it varies greatly. I feel like I've turned into my father. He nearly almost always orders French onion soup if he sees it on the menu. It doesn't matter if it's 10 o'clock in the morning or 100 degrees outside. He sees it, he gets it, and he's generally happy with it. Well, that's me this summer except that I'm much less accepting. I've started acting like a judge at an Olympic figure skating competition.

Hmmm, this one needs some finishing salt. 

Ohhh, this one is so silky. Did they run that through the chinois twice? 

Ahhh, the aleppo pepper really adds the perfect hit of smokiness and depth. 

I recognize that I sound like a moron, but it's as if I'm chasing the perfect bowl of corn soup.

I actually think I found it. I ordered it to share with my dining companion but after tasting it I was ready to fight him for it. And then I secretly wanted another bowl but was too embarrassed to ask for it. So, after seeing a bin of fresh corn at the farmer's market last weekend, I thought I'd try to replicate it. I'm sure the chef of the restaurant would give me a big eye roll right about now. "Bitch, puh-leaze," he's saying under his breath.  Whatevs. My version turned out awesome.

I don't think I can really claim much credit. The key, of course, is to get really good corn. Sweet summer corn is truly fabulous with its row upon row of plump, slightly misshapen and firm kernels in varying shades of yellow beneath it's silky cover. It's like unwrapping a present. 

Anyway, corn soup. It's really easy to make as the corn is the superstar. You basically just cut the kernels off the cob and simmer them in some broth and a little cream until tender. You could stop there but I was going for restaurant-quality corn soup, which would require a few more steps. Namely pureeing it. And then because I wanted fancy (as in "refined" not as in Iggy Azalea) corn soup, I strained it and discarded all the solids.

What you're left with is almost liquified sweet earthy summer corn. It's silky smooth and on the thin side by intention. It's ethereally light but quite rich. It's the essence of a perfect cob of corn.

Fresh Corn Soup

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium sweet onion
8 cups of corn kernels (cut from 10-14 ears)
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup cream
1/2 stick of butter
1 Tbsp coarse sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
1/4 cup chipped fresh chives
Ground Aleppo pepper and good olive oil to finish

1. Warm olive oil over medium heat and sauté onions until caramelized, approximately 7 minutes. 
2. Simmer corn with salt, onion, chicken broth, cream in a large pot or Dutch oven, covered, 20 minutes, or until very tender. Add the butter and stir until melted. This is actually what adds silkiness to the soup. Remove from heat. 
3. Puree soup in batched in a blender or using an immersion blender in the pot. As each batch is pureed, pour through a coarse sieve, pressing on solids, into a saucepan. 
4. Reheat soup, stirring, on low, and season with additional salt and pepper as needed. If soup is too thick, thin with a little chicken broth or water. 
5. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle a little Aleppo pepper and chives on top. Finish with a drizzle of good olive oil.