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Lucky peach.

In our last episode, I mentioned that my husband and I like to hit the farm stands on the way back from the Delaware shore on beach weekends. What I didn’t talk about was the peaches. Last summer was amazing for peaches – I don’t know what the deal was, maybe something in the ultra-high temps and decent rainfall made for the most delicious peaches in years. This summer was pretty good as well. Supermarket peaches weren’t as reliably juicy-sweet as they were last year, and I had more than a couple of mealy fruits, but the farm stand peaches were impeccable.

I’m allergic to peaches. I’m not supposed to eat them, but I do. My ears burn from the inside and the roof of my mouth itches like crazy. Maybe 10 percent of the time I’ll luck out, but most of the time, I pay for my fun. It’s the same with all stone fruit – nectarines, cherries, plums, apricots all send me to Itchytown. Apparently, if you’re allergic to birch trees, you’ll probably also be allergic to stone fruit. There are two ways to avoid the itch altogether. One is to heat the fruit, so cobblers, pies, clafoutis, purées, fruit soups are all pretty safe. The other is to soak the fruit in alcohol. In both cases, the principle is the same – to denature the protein that elicits the allergic reaction.

In addition to this somewhat esoteric virtue, soaking fruit in alcohol has other merits. For one, alcohol is a pretty good preservative, especially at high concentrations. As very basic food preservation methods go, soaking fruit in booze is probably the easiest. And you can double down from a food preservation standpoint by adding sugar to the booze, although the primary culinary reason to add sugar is to prevent the fruit from absorbing too much alcohol through osmosis. Take yourself back to high school chemistry for a moment and recall that, where the concentration of solute in solvents differs on two sides of a selectively permeable membrane, the solvent will pass through the membrane from the area of lower solute concentration (such as a more dilute sugar solution) to the area of higher solute concentration (such as a more concentrated sugar solution), until the concentrations are equal. So adding sugar to the booze prevents too much alcohol from passing from the preserving liquid into the sweet peaches. It’s a little more complicated than that as well – peaches contain quite a bit of water and hard liquor contains something like 50-60% water, depending on the alcohol content of the liquor, so water also passes through the peach fruit cells. But anyway, you get the idea. The fruit becomes boozy, and the booze becomes fruit-juicy.

Enough science for you? OK. Get into the kitchen and put those end of season fruits in some booze, so you can enjoy them again once December rolls around.

Peaches, bourbon

For me, the real prize isn’t the peach that emerges from the boozing process – it’s the peach-juicy liquor left behind. So decide what you want: sweet but somewhat boozy peaches and sugary (but still sippable or mixable) bourbon, or sort of overwhelmingly boozy peaches and delicious, delicious peachy booze juice. If you want the peaches less boozy, you need to add sugar to your mix. Otherwise, just slice the fruit and cover with booze. In a few months, you’ll be able to enjoy the peach liquor.

I usually use something cheap, like Jack Daniel’s, since the subtleties of better quality booze probably will be lost or diluted in the process of fruit preservation. But right now I’ve got one jar of nectarines going with Eagle Rare – we’ll see if it makes a big difference once we crack that sucker open in November.

three pounds summer peaches, nectarines, etc
500 ml bourbon
250g (about 1 1/4 c) sugar.

Wash the fruit well and slice into 12 each (quarter and then cut each quarter into thirds). If using sugar, place the fruit slices in a large, nonreactive bowl (ceramic is good) and toss with the sugar. Allow to macerate for about an hour. If not using sugar, proceed immediately to the next step.

Pack into sterilized Mason jars or another jar with a tight-sealing lid, with the sugar and juices if applicable. Cover with bourbon. Seal tightly and place in a cool dark place to age for about three months.

Cherries, spiced rum

Same deal as the peaches. You can sugar these or not, depending on how you want the end product to turn out. If you like the cherries to stay relatively juicy and sweet and not unbearably boozy, use the sugar. If you’re really just trying to produce an awesome cherry rum, go without. Pit the cherries if you like, but I prefer to leave them pits-in, which lends a subtle almond taste to the rum.

Use the same proportions of sugar to alcohol. In this case, I used no sugar and Kraken spiced rum, which is an amazing sipping rum, especially considering the price. Don’t let your scary college memories of Captain Morgan’s get in the way of your fun here – the Kraken is delicious. If you can’t find it, or don’t want to use it, just use any other really dark aged rum, and throw in the spices of your choice – a cinnamon stick, some cloves, a few allspice berries, a vanilla pod. I don’t recommend using ground spice since this will adversely affect the drinkability of the rum – it’s like swallowing little bits of sand.

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Farm stand.

We live in Maryland, which as you may know from your high school American History course sided with the Union during the Civil War, but not without a great deal of conflict. At the time of the Civil War, not quite half of Maryland’s black population were freedmen, and its membership in the Union was assured not so much by local volition as by the Federal troops stationed on a hill overlooking the south side of the Baltimore Harbor shortly following the Baltimore riots in April 1861. On April 19th of that year, pro-secessionist Marylanders attacked a regiment of Union forces traveling between the train stations en route to Washington, DC, in an event widely considered the first bloodshed of the Civil War. So Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, always have seemed more Southern to me than Northern, a legacy of the longtime pro-Southern sympathies of the population. Indeed, the Mason-Dixon line divides Pennsylvania from Maryland. (And Maryland’s nickname, “The Free State,” has nothing to do with its stance on abolition, but refers instead to a later dispute over Prohibition.)

Historically and culinarily, it seems appropriate to count Maryland as part of the American South (and apropos of this discussion, the Disunion piece earlier this week in the New York Times discusses Baltimore’s Confederate tendencies). If you’ve ever spent any time down south, you know that Southern cuisine really is all about vegetables. Not that Southerners shun the meats by any means – country hams and fried chicken are two of the finest Southern contributions to carnivorism, after all – but Southern farms take advantage of longer growing seasons to produce some of our finest vegetables and fruits – peaches and okra, corn and tomatoes, sweet potatoes and greens. One of the finest aspects of Southern tradition is a reluctance to waste perfectly good food – pig’s feet get pickled, hocks get smoked, bacon grease and lard are saved for frying, unripe, “green” tomatoes are fried or turned to jam like the last of the season’s fruit harvest. Southern kitchens are masters of the art of “putting up” – preserving, pickling, and salting to extend the summer harvest throughout the year. In season, though, you’ll find fresh vegetables on show – boiled or fried, stewed or creamed. Traditionally, vegetables are flavored with bacon or salt pork, or butter and onion, and served in a rustic family style.

A year or two after moving to the east coast, I started spending summer weekends at the Delaware beaches. My husband and I make the drive every few weeks when the weekend weather is good – three hours out, and a shorter trip back, usually in the same day. A typical visit to the Delaware shore ends with an evening stop at one or two stands for melons, corn, peaches, and whatever looks especially good that day, Sometimes, it’s the lavender and white-striped graffiti eggplant, like easter eggs in cardboard nests; sometimes, freshly dug baby potatoes; once it was a red variety of okra, and another time glossy poblanos, popular among the area’s growing Latino population. On our last trip – just before leaving for Europe – we picked up corn and cantaloupes, peaches and tomatoes, okra and zephyr squash. Enjoy the summer’s vegetables and fruits – from your own garden, a farm stand or local market, or the supermarket – while they’re at their best.

Creamed corn

The very best way to eat a truly fresh ear of corn is on the cob, after a quick blanch in salted boiling water. The next best way is creamed or puréed- corn relish and sautés are nice, but usually involve too many extraneous ingredients like peppers and such.

As you know, corn is starchy, which means it thickens up well. A little flour added before the milk lends a creamier texture, but I’m not crazy about the way it sticks to the palate – basically a béchamel sauce. So you decide whether you prefer a thinner, looser creamed corn or the thickened version. Excellent with fried chicken (pictured below).

4 ears corn, shucked and kernels cut off
water
2/3 c cream
optional: 1/2 c milk and 2 tsp flour
6 branches thyme, bundled
4 tbsp butter, divided
salt and pepper
chives or scallions, sliced thinly

Simmer the corncobs in the milk with the thyme for 15 minutes to extract the sweetness of the cobs and intensify the corn flavor. Remove the cobs and the thyme branches.

shoepeg corn

Place a saute pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Once the butter melts and begins to foam, add the corn and season with salt. Saute until the corn is just cooked through (about 2-3 minutes). If using, add the flour, stir well to incorporate into the butter, add the milk and cream, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Otherwise, just add the cream and simmer.

Season with salt and pepper, and chives or shredded mint.

Heirloom tomato risotto

As with corn, probably the best way to eat a summer tomato is raw, with sherry vinegar and a little salt, or on a sandwich with mayonnaise. Sometimes you harvest (or buy) so many that you need to find a way to dispose of them before they go bad. Paste tomatoes make great confit, but what about the juicier varieties?

Try this heirloom tomato risotto. This isn’t a Southern dish, obviously, but tomatoes and rice are both classic Southern ingredients. I like making a tomato stock first with the tomatoes, rather than leaving them whole, for a refined texture and intense tomato flavor.

4 lb heirloom tomatoes (mixed if you like, or a specific kind – the black-purple types make a really intensely flavored risotto)
2 c white veal stock, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
rind from a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional but recommended)
1 small onion, minced
4 cloves garlic confit
2/3 c dry white wine
1 1/2 c carnaroli rice
bay leaf
6 sprigs thyme, bundled
3 tbsp butter
1/2 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
piment d’espelette
salt
basil leaves

Place a large pot, filled with water, over high heat and bring to a boil. Mark a shallow “x” with a sharp knife in the non-blossom end of each tomato and, when the water boils, dip the tomatoes in the water for about 10-15 seconds. Plunge into ice water and peel the skins.

Dice the tomatoes (if you’re feeling especially anal-retentive, you can scoop the seeds and gel into a strainer and let the juice drip into a bowl). Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Reserve about 1/4 c tomato for later. Add the remaining tomatoes, reduce the heat, and cook the tomatoes until tender. Continue to cook, breaking up the tomatoes, until they fall apart. Add 2 c stock and bring to a simmer. Strain through a chinois. Return to the pan and reduce to about 5 c. To this point, you can prepare this dish up to two days in advance (chill the tomato stock).

Bring the tomato stock and Parmigiano rind to a simmer. Reduce heat and maintain a bare simmer

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp (1/2 oz) butter. When foaming, add the onion, and sweat until tender. Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil, about 2 minutes (tostatura). Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Increase the heat somewhat and add the garlic confit and tomato stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes. The rice takes about 20 minutes to cook and, when properly al dente, should still have a little resistance but not hardness in the center of each grain.

As soon as the rice is cooked al dente, remove from the heat and stir in the butter and the Parmigiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and espelette pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the basil leaves and reserved diced tomato. Serve immediately.

Pickled okra

I’m not even going to pretend. This is a straight rip-off of the Rick’s Pick’s Smokra. I devised this recipe when I discovered that I could eat an entire jar of those pickled okra in one sitting. They cost something like $8/jar, and okra’s maybe $2/lb in season, so. The genius is the use of the smoked paprika. And the pickling process draws that slime right out of the okra.

1 lb okra, trimmed but left whole
12 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
8 chile de arbol
1 tbsp pimentón de la vera, agridulce
1 tsp curry powder (Madras)
1/2 tsp cayenne and crushed chile pepper
1 tsp each mustard seed (whole), coriander seed

3 1/2 tsp salt

2 1/3 c apple cider vinegar
2 c filtered water

Sterilize 2 pint jars with lids. Trim the okra tops and tails.

Bring all the ingredients except the okra to a boil. Meanwhile, pack the okra vertically into the jars. Ladle the liquid and an equal quantity of the solids (seeds, chile pepper, garlic) into the jars.

Seal tightly and process in a boiling water bath, covered with water, for 10 minutes. Be sure the lid is sealed appropriately. Pickle on the shelf for a couple of weeks before eating.

Pickled okra; hot pickled green beans in the back.

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