Monday, August 27, 2012

Just Peachy: Peach-Blueberry Cobbler

Although the drought we’ve had this summer has been devastating, I've heard that there has been a silver lining of sorts. The naturally occurring sugars in crops such as peaches, grapes, and cantaloupe become more concentrated when water is at a premium. So, even though the fruits are generally smaller because the lack of water failed to plump them up, their flavor has been intensified. Yes, that is small consolation for those poor people in the drought-ravaged areas, and I assume they are not sending up flares in response to this, but the peach lovers out there should.

Well, it just so happened that there'd been a bowl of peaches ripening on my counter for a few days. The fruit was beautiful: the colors ranged from deep yellow to red interspersed with patches of orange. These are the fiery colors of autumn, but peaches are so symbolic of summer, that the irony of it all was...well, ironic.   When that heady, peachy aroma brushed my nostrils each time I passed by the bowl, I knew they were ready, as was I, for cobbler. 

There’s an ongoing debate regarding whether or not to peel the peaches before baking them in a pie or cobbler and this time I chose to go with the “yes” side. I filled a large pot with water and allowed it to come to a slow boil. I made an “X” at the bottom of each peach with a paring knife, and once the water boiled, dropped each one in. After they bobbed around for about three to four minutes (you don’t want to cook them, just loosen the skins), I carefully inched them into a bowl full of ice water using a slotted spoon. I waited a few seconds for them to cool, and slid the skins off. Every once in a while you’ll get a recalcitrant peach, so if that happens, pop the little sucker back into the hot water for another minute or so or merely peel the skin off with the paring knife. Once the fruit was “denuded,” the cobbler-making could begin.

I came across what looked like a wonderful cobbler recipe from Jamie, of the blog Life's A Feast, and I combined it with a portion of my own tried-and-true recipe. The result was a bubbling base of caramelly peaches--soft and almost creamy, not quite hiding beneath the crunchy top biscuits, which served as a  perfect foil. The Maine blueberries added some extra color, and smidge of tartness. Truly a perfect almost-end-of-summer dessert.

Peach-Blueberry Cobbler
(adapted from Life’s A Feast and Nancy Silverton)

                                                       For the Peaches:
1/4c. water
3/4c. granulated sugar, plus 1 Tbsp. for sprinkling over the fruit
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped of seeds
juice from half of a lemon
7 to 8 peaches (3 1/2 lbs.), pitted, peeled, cut into eighths, and cut in half diagonally
2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/8c. cornstarch
1 heaping cup blueberries

For the Biscuits:
1c. cake flour
1/2c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar plus 2 Tbsp. for sprinkling over biscuits
1/4c. heavy cream
1 egg
1/3c, unsalted butter, cold, cubed

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a 9x12-inch rectangular baking dish, and set it aside.

To prepare the peaches: In a large heavy skillet, stir together the water and sugar. Add the vanilla bean scrapings and pod to the sugar mixture. Whisk the seeds into the sugar/water mixture to evenly distribute. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until sugar takes on a darker color. (Tile and swirl the pan to cook evenly.) When the mixture reaches an even medium caramel color, remove from the heat.

Add the peaches, lemon juice, and a few grating of the nutmeg, tossing to coat. (Be careful as the mixture may spatter and the sugar may harden.) Replace the pan over the hot stove and allow it to sit until sugar melts.

Place a large strainer over a bowl and pour in the fruit, straining the liquid into the bowl. Remove the vanilla bean and transfer peaches to the baking dish. In a small cup, whisk together the cornstarch and a tablespoon of the peach liquid. Once it is all mixed together, pour slurry and remaining liquid into the original skillet. Over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Pour the thickened juice over the peaches and scatter the berries evenly throughout.

 To make the biscuits: Sift the flours, baking powder, sugar, and salt together into a large mixing bowl. Toss the cold, cubed butter in the flour then rub the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles cornmeal or damp sand. Make a well in the center; whisk the egg into the cream, and then pour onto the flour mixture. Stir with a fork until well combined and has become a thick batter.

 Drop the dough by very large spoonfuls making an uneven scattering over the fruit, leaving some of the peaches poking through. Brush the dough with a tablespoon of cream and a few gratings of nutmeg. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of the sugar evenly over the dough and bake for 20 to 35 minutes until the biscuits are firm and golden brown, and the liquid is bubbling.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cool Beans: Cilantro Vinaigrette Bean Salad

School bells are ringing, the days are getting shorter, and the temps are dropping...sort of. While autumn is nipping at summer’s heels, and a slight chill is wrapping itself around the morning hours like a light cardigan, there is still time to have a picnic or outdoor barbecue. 

Side dishes have always been my favorite part of any outdoor feast, but it’s been my experience that the traditional Bean Salad has never been a huge crowd pleaser. The dressing is always watery, and often a little too vinegary for my taste. I’m not a big fan of canned wax beans, and can’t understand why they are often included in this dish. 

This Bean Salad below is a tasty twist on the classic. The Cilantro Vinaigrette is a bit thicker than the standard sweet/sour dressing, thus the beans don’t get as soggy. It can be prepared ahead of time and added to the rest of the ingredients just before serving.  The combo of beans can vary according to your taste. I like to use a variety of colors and sizes. The corn also adds color and a bit of crunch.

Head outside and warm your face in the sun for just a little while longer.  Don’t forget the  sunscreen...and the picnic basket.

Cilantro Vinaigrette Bean Salad

1/2c. cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Combine all ingredients in a blender and pulse until almost smooth

1 can red kidney beans, drained
1 can garbanzo beans, drained
1 can black beans, drained
1 can corn, drained
1/2 large red onion, minced
Combine all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Pour the dressing on top.  Gently mix until everything is well coated with dressing.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chocolate Almond Crumb Bars

I first began collecting recipes when I was in my twenties. This was pre-Internet days, so many of the recipes I culled were taken from women’s magazines and the weekly food sections of various newspapers. I would sometimes cut out the recipes, but more often I would retype them (yes, on a real typewriter) on small index cards. These cards were kept in a long, wooden file--the kind that contained the card catalogs at the libraries back in the day. I still have that file, and I have to admit that I now keep it more for sentimental reasons than for actual cooking purposes. But every once in a while I get a flash of a recipe I haven't made in years, and know the odds are it is in that file.

Such is the case with these Crumb Bars. I can’t say exactly where the recipe came from, but the card it is stapled to is stained and discolored enough for me to know that I made it quite often. These bars are hefty, and I’ve substituted some whole wheat flour for some of the all-purpose, so they are even a tad wholesome. The center is fudgy; the cream cheese gives it a subtle tanginess. It will be hard to resist the crunchy browned edges as you cut them away to make perfect squares, so keep them on the side for some private snacking.

As the summer, sadly, winds down, so goes the picnic season. Now is a great time to squeeze in a few more al fresco outings. Stack a few Crumb Bars in one container, add some cut-up, still-luscious peaches in another, and you’ve got yourself a great dessert to pop into the picnic basket. While you make your last grasps at the waning warm days ahead, you will be sustained with a perfect  picnic treat that won't wilt (or melt) under the sun's hot rays.

                                          Beneath the trees where nobody sees, 
They'll hide and seek as long as they please.
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

Chocolate Almond Crumb Bars

1 cup (6 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup (6 oz.) milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup (5.3-ounce can) evaporated milk
1 cup chopped walnuts (opt.)
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temp.
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. almond extract

Combine bittersweet and milk chocolates, cream cheese, and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate pieces are melted and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat; stir in 1/2 tsp. almond extract and chopped walnuts, if using. Blend well; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter, sugar, baking powder, and flours until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add remaining 1/2 tsp. almond extract and beaten eggs and continue to blend until large clumps are formed. Press half of mixture into a greased 9x13-inch pan that has been lined with parchment paper; spread with chocolate mixture. Sprinkle remaining crumbs over filling. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, lower temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 15 minutes.  Cool; cut into bars. Makes about 3 dozen bars.