Peach Picking Pleasures

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The past few years I’ve struggled with a growing desire to reconnect more with nature, specifically gardening. I think it comes from a combination of living 200 feet in the sky, increasing awareness of where food comes from, and a desire to save money. Either way, I don’t have much interest in livestock, but I would love a garden of my own to tend to that would provide with me edible payoff. Sadly, that’s just not possible right now – trust me, I’ve tried!

This summer I made it to the City Farm where I spent an afternoon weeding rows of beets, picking green beans, and preparing a plot for lettuce to grow. I also spent an afternoon at the Common Threads garden where children learn about agriculture by tending to strawberries, corn, squash and so much more.

Jackie at Fruit Orchard Farms Marci at Fruit Orchard Farms

*Yes, we’re wearing the same color shirt and no, that wasn’t on purpose!

The final thing I wanted to accomplish was visiting a u-pick farm where I could walk the fields and fill bushels with local, ripe fruit plucked straight off the tree. Or bush. Or ground. Or whatever it is fruit grows on.

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Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Hopefully you can handle this.

Here goes: I keep a journal.

Sort of.

Okay, it’s not a real journal. I don’t gush about my hopes and dreams, but rather a little notebook I carry with me to record dishes and flavor combinations I want to prepare.

Essentially, I like to write down ideas when the inspiration strikes so I don’t forget them later. These can range from a dish I’m enjoying at a restaurant that I want to try to recreate (i.e. zucchini rolls with macadamia nut filling), to a recipe I read in a magazine, to a funky smell wafting through the air as I walk down the street.

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The third item on the never-ending list is pasta e fagioli, a Tuscan white bean soup traditionally made with pancetta although I usually use bacon instead. I think I added it after visiting family in Florida last Thanksgiving. For some reason pasta e fagioli is really popular in south Florida and I eat so much of it when I’m there that I pretty much get my fill for the year. Just like I only eat salmon burgers on vacation, but I’ll save that story for another time.

Back to the “journal.” Every so often when I read the list – and hopefully cross a few things off – I think how nice a thick, rich, steaming bowl of pasta e fagioli would be on a chilly day. I mentally slated it for late October when the weather would be turning cold.

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Well, the weather dude seemed to have a different idea and it got pretty cold this month, so I figured now was as good a time as any to make pasta e fagioli.

But I did discover a silver lining to making pasta e fagioli in August: it’s the perfect time of year to use really incredible fresh tomatoes. Just look at the size of these tomatoes I picked up at the famer’s market, they’re more than 1 pound each!

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Here’s the recipe:

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Heirloom Tomato Tart

Heirloom Tomato Tart 2

As fresh as can be, this rustic tart highlighting the vibrant flavors of summer heirloom tomatoes is easy to assemble and lets the oven do most of the work. It is essentially a collaboration of smaller recipes that can be made in advance and some even stored in the freezer, such as the pastry dough and pesto sauce.

For the tart, the tomatoes are lightly roasted to remove some of their moisture without changing the flavors. On the other hand, the garlic is also roasted in the oven but for a longer period of time, which completely changes it’s flavor and I think makes it a bit sweeter. For the record, I’ve been known to eat whole heads of roasted garlic by itself. Yes, it’s that good.

Heirloom Tomato Tart

Pâte brisée comes together in mere minutes but also freezes very well, so the last time I prepared it I made a double batch and froze the leftover ball of dough. To use, place the dough in the refrigerator the evening before you plan on working with it and it will be ready to go by morning.

I also like to make a large batch of pesto sauce every summer when fresh basil is cheap and abundant and store it in the freezer. Pour the fresh pesto into a freezer bag and smooth it into a 1/2-inch thick layer, squeeze out the air, and freeze. Break off a small chunk when you want to you use it and it’ll last through the winter.

Heirloom Tomato Tar: tomatoes ready for roasting Heirloom Tomato Tart: cooked pastry shell Heirloom Tomato Tart: assembly

The heirloom tomatoes are the true highlight of the tart with the other flavors intended to compliment their effervescent summeriness (today that’s a word). Of course you could use more cheese or even add mozzarella, but I think that would turn the tart into a pizza and the beautiful tomatoes would get lost.

Also, the tart is best served at room temperature and gets better as it sits and the flavors have a chance to meld together a bit. It truly puts leftover pizza to shame.

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Basil Butter

Basil Butter

Basil Butter

Sometimes it’s the simplest recipes that add the most pizazz to a meal. Take basil butter: made from just five ingredients with nothing more than a food processor or by hand with a bowl and wooden spoon, this flavored butter is a great way to add depth and color to vegetables, pasta, fish or chicken.

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I made basil butter for a family get-together where we served it alongside fresh corn. The leftover butter came home with me, which I rolled into a log surrounded by parchment paper and froze, making it ideal for cutting off small pieces when needed. A few days later I pulled the log out of the freezer, cut off a tablespoon-sized round and added it to my penne pasta with corn and zucchini for a finishing touch and burst of flavor.

Basil Butter Penne with Corn & Zucchini

Basil Butter Penne with Corn & Zucchini

The basil butter can be stored three days in the refrigerator or a few months in the freezer and can be used as both a flavored spread and as a sauce.

Here’s the recipe:

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Heirloom Tomato & Avocado Salad Revisited

Heirloom Tomato & Avocado Salad

Heirloom Tomato & Avocado Salad: a simple celebration of summer flavors

August: Traditionally hot and humid, it’s the month I used to fill with doctors appointments before heading back to school. Of course, that was many years ago and since that time I’ve added a few new associations: the air and water show, which I dread because it takes place mere blocks from my apartment; and heirloom tomatoes, which I love and dream about throughout July. Dread and a dream, a reassuring balance knowing those two events will occur every year.

And with heirloom tomatoes I always want avocado. It started the very first time I worked with heirloom tomatoes during culinary school when I was charged with creating a southwest-style side dish for a banquet. I scrounged through notes and books until I discovered an heirloom tomato and avocado salad with a cumin vinaigrette. There were no words to describe how good it was except to say it blew me away. Not only did I ace that assignment, but one of the toughest instructors took home the leftovers. Granted, I’d wanted them but was in no position to fight her.

Heirloom Tomato

Now every August when heirloom tomatoes are at their pinnacle, the first dish I make is indubitably a combination of heirloom tomatoes and avocado. It’s a beautiful collaboration of rich, creamy avocado that cuts into the sweet and acidic tomatoes, which in and of themselves burst with flavor.

While by no means complex, last year’s salad was a bit busy with chicken, champagne vinaigrette and toasted almonds. This year I wanted to create a simple celebration of flavors to enhance the tomatoes with peppery arugula, aged balsamic vinegar and a bit of chiffonade basil. Simple and delicious and a highlight of the season.

Heirloom Tomatoes Halved tomato Diced avocado

Here’s the recipe:

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