Balsamic-Peach Caprese Salad

peach caprese title

Fall. Pumpkin. Leaves. Fall! Pumpkin Spice! Leaves!  FALL.  PUMPKIN SPICE….I get it.  I really do.  Fall is my absolute, unequivocal favorite season and I have been more than happy to pull on sweaters while daydreaming about the not-so-far-off time that the crisp weather that accompanies me on morning walk will last all day long.  Yes, I am excited for fall.

Here’s the deal.  It isn’t fall quiteyet.  We are still hitting 70’s here, with strong sunlight that keep our afternoons warm (downright hot, if you couldn’t resist a sweater while getting dressed this morning.  Thank goodness for chilly offices).  And, while decorative gourds and sweet potatoes are showing up at the farmer’s market, the tomatoes, peaches, and melons are still overflowing.  Even if I am wearing a sweater, I am not ready to kiss “summer food” goodbye.  Braising and stews and soups can wait.  I’m going to go eat a peach.

As well as my resistance to fall, another odd change has occurred.  I’ve never been a fruit-on-salad kind of person.  While I’m sure I’ve had one or two very delicious salads with strawberries in my life, and I will jump at the chance to add dried cranberries into salads; the thought of fresh fruit mixed among greens and vegetables has been less than appetizing.  Occasionally, I will get a hankering for mandarin oranges on an Asian-style salad, but only with a lot of sesame dressing, tender chicken, and crunchy seeds.  I have realized, however, is if the greens and lettuces are decreased and the more weighty vegetables are increased, I tend to love the fruit+vegetable combo.  Add a bit of cheese and I am totally sold.  I don’t know why it has taken me so long to come to this realization.  I’ve been pairing fruit in meat dishes for ages: apples and pork, pineapple in asian dishes, lemons and oranges with chicken.  I love the sweet+savoury profile.  With this new expanse of fruit and vegetable dishes to explore, I have been happily pairing and partnering any fresh produce I can get my hands on.  I have been keeping the produce raw, cold, and fresh–still distinctly in the summer season for these dishes.

On Labor Day weekend, M and I had our mothers over to catch up after ignoring being unable to see much of them during the camp season.  It was only a day after we returned from North Carolina, and after a weekend of trying new restaurants, pizza, ice cream, and road trip snacks, all I wanted was vegetables.  While M took care of the short ribs, I mixed up kale salad, potatoes with mojo verde sauce, a ton of grilled veggies, and the crowning glory: this Balsamic-Peach Caprese salad.  Adding peach to caprese is certainly not a new idea, but one I had avoided for a long time, given my thoughts on fruit and vegetables intermingling.  But I saw it (and did not order it) on the menu at the Saxapahaw General Store and it struck a chord with me.  I am so happy that I made that salad.  I only had the chance to take one photo before everyone in attendance devoured it, but I will continue to make this as long as I can get my hands on peaches and tomatoes.

Caprese is one of the simplest salads to put together, yet it looks beautiful and special.  Yes, I am well aware that true Caprese means tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and just a touch of salt and olive oil.  But I also love the little zing that a bit of balsamic vinegar and black pepper can add to that mix.  These also compliment the peaches sweetness perfectly.  Ripe peaches have the texture of the perfect tomato: where the flesh is firm and there isn’t too much of the seeds to squish and get slimy.  Between the texture and the sweetness, peaches are the perfect addition to the already perfect Caprese.

A couple of slices, a sprinkle of salt, and a little drizzle of olive oil are all that separate you from this fresh, delicious salad.  Be sure to use the highest quality ingredients that you can find–in such a simple salad, every ingredient shines.

Balsamic-Peach Caprese Salad

Serves: 4 | Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: N/A

  • 4 oz fresh mozzarella
  • 3-4 small or 1-2 large, firm tomatoes (I used campari)
  • 1 large, ripe peach
  • 1 handful of fresh basil leaves
  • 2 Tbsp. high-quality olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper

Thinly slice the mozzarella.  I usually get an 8 oz ball and cut it in half, then slice from there.  The smaller pieces of cheese are more on scale with my small campari tomatoes.  (Typically, I count the slice of cheese that I end up with, so I can cut the peaches and tomatoes accordingly).  Slice the tomatoes, then the peach into slightly thicker slices.  Add the peaches slices to a bowl, pour the balsamic vinegar over the peaches and mix gently to coat. (This spreads the balsamic flavor through the whole dish, and, unlike drizzling the vinegar over everything, keeps the cheese white, rather than staining it brown).  Layer a piece of cheese, a basil leaf, a tomato slice, and a peach slice.  Repeat until all slices are organized into the pattern on the plate(s).  Drizzle olive oil over the dish, then sprinkle salt and pepper.  Serve cold or at room temperature.  Refrigerate leftovers promptly.

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Spiced Brandied Cherries

brandied cherries title

Hello, everyone out there not in post-camp life!  It’s good to be back!  Seven weeks of kids ended in a week-long plague that knocked me out hard for several days.  It was the run-of-the-mill virus that has been traveling around this summer: flu-like body aches and pains plus chest congestion.  Unfortunately, it kicked my asthma into the first major reaction I have had in years, and my lungs inflamed and shut up tight, keeping all of the muck from the cold down in my lungs and prolonging the misery.  Even now, the cough still lingers, though a quick course of prednisone calmed most of my asthma symptoms and I feel almost back to normal.  I was on so many over-the-counter cold treatments to get me through my last weekend of stage managing, I’ve wrecked my digestive tract.  I almost feel like I was gluten-ed.  Except, this doesn’t feel like gluten, and I know I haven’t eaten any.  Anyways, it does mean that I’ve put away all of my meds for now, and I’m focusing on restocking with probiotics and vitamins.  Hopefully, by this time next week, I will truly be back on track to ‘normal’.

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Sickness aside, I had a fantastic time at camp, as always.  I worked with a new age group and co-teacher, whom I have known for ages.  It is so interesting to see what just a year or two in the age difference of students makes.  My students were just young enough to really hold onto the last vestiges of carefree childhood.  Working with the teenagers in the past, I was always gratefully surprised when they acted against the stereotypes of their age–forgetting to worry about how they might look when asked to play a silly game or including the ‘weird kid’ in the circle at lunch.  This year, most of my students had not yet begun to truly cling to those shallow worries and concerns based, primarily, on the (imagined, real, or potential) judgement of their peers.  Most of them were still just “kids”, happy to be among friends old and new and eager to try anything–heedless of any risk that they might act “silly” or “uncool”.  I suppose I should stop being so surprised when my students shatter society’s stereotypical expectations.  Every year, every camp, every audition, I am left in awe of these students who prove time and time again that they are brave, they are talented, they are kind and inclusive, and so much better than I could ever hope.

I will not warble on nostalgically about my epic, awesome students, since I already have on this blog and certainly will again in the future.  Auditions for our fall shows are in just seven weeks, and I will be overflowing with kid-spiration once more.  Anyways, in spite of the crazy schedule and usual exhaustion accompanying my summers, I felt that I did a little better with my meal-planning game.  I only gave up on dinner and had us go out/get take away about once a week–and a few of those times were planned social outings.  Last year was pretty dismal for the home-cooked meals.  We spent way too much money.  This year I planned familiar, easy dinners that wouldn’t seem so daunting when we got home.  On the weekends, I managed to play a little in the kitchen, including this canning project that I wanted to share before cherry season left us.

brandied cherries stack 2

Our farmers market has had beautiful cherries for several weeks, now, though the season is beginning to wind down.  I had been looking into preserving fruit–beyond cooking them down into jams and jellies.  While plenty of recipes preserved fruit pieces in juice and sugar syrup, when I stumbled upon the piles of fruit+booze preserving recipes, I knew I had struck gold.  I’ve already shared some spiked canning recipes, and these spiced, brandied cherries seemed like the perfect addition to that corner of this blog.  But, here is where I have to lay out the facts: I haven’t actually tried these cherries.  At least not at their full potential.  I did taste a fruit after the cooking (pre-canning) process, and I have had a lot of syrup left over since I made a larger batch.  Both were delightful.  But the true potential for these cherries comes from stewing and sitting for at least a month, to really let the flavors build and combine.  I’ve still got a couple weeks left before I can try these babies.  I’d like to think that there is something a little daring in making up a batch and waiting so long to try the result.  Maybe that is my sickness-addled brain talking, since I really cannot imagine the finished product being bad when the syrup and cooked fruit were so lovely. Speaking of, I’ve been using the syrup in all sorts of cocktails and sodas (stir a few spoonfuls into ginger beer…trust me).  I’d like to ladle some over ice cream as well, but I keep forgetting to grab some at the store.  There is plenty of boozy, delicious potential here!  Why don’t you make your own before cherry season is over?

Don’t be afraid of the canning part.  Seriously.  I have conquered water baths without any sort of rack or special pot and done just fine.  As long as you have a soup pot that is tall enough to allow the jars to be covered by an inch of war, you are good to go. If my lids don’t pop when I remove them from the water bath, I boil the jar in the water again.  It works like a charm!  With all the sugar and alcohol in here, these cherries would certainly last for a while in the fridge, if you really want to avoid the canning process.

Also, invest in a cherry pitter.  I know.  I really didn’t want to buy one.  With the exception of my madeleine pan (because madeleine cookies are totally worth it), everything else in my kitchen serves multiple purposes.  But given the mess that the juice makes, a cherry pitter is totally worth the ease and speed it provides for recipes like these.  Plus I now have one less excuse to not make cherry pie!  I found one that has a “juice guard” that helps with the splatter and let me buzz through this batch of cherries in less than ten minutes.  And, technically, it can pit olives, too.  There’s multi-purpose, right?

brandied cherries hold

Brandied Cherries

Makes: 3-4 half-pint jars | Prep: 20 minutes | Cook/Process: 30 minutes

  • 3 heaping cups cherries (about 1 lb)
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. water
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice
  • 1/2 c. brandy
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Prepare your canning jars: sterilize the glass jars in a hot-cycle of your dishwasher, or boil the jars, along with lids and rings, for 10 minutes.  Turn the heat to low and keep the jars warm while you prepare the fruit.

Wash the cherries well.  Remove all stems and pit the fruit.  Ripe, unblemished fruit is best–since we are using them whole, cutting away the blemishes makes for a less-pretty end result and might cause the fruit to come apart and squish in the syrup.  The taste should still be fine, so make your own choice to cut out the blemishes or just use un-bruised fruit.

Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, anise, cinnamon, and cloves in a large sauce pan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes.  Stir in brandy, then add the prepared cherries.  Bring to a boil, then turn heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove the mixture from heat.  Fish out the hard spices (anise pods, cloves, cinnamon stick) and stir in vanilla extract.

Remove the jars from the water bath.  Turn heat to high to bring the water to a boil once more.  Ladle first the cherries, then the syrup into the jars, until they are filled up to 1/2 in from the top of the jar (right where the screw-rings begin).  Wipe the edges of the jar clean with a dry paper towel, then top jars with lids.  Hand screw the rings onto the jars loosely–just until you hit resistance.  (If not canning the cherries, screw the rings tightly and allow to cool).  When all jars are prepared, gently lower into boiling water.  Make sure the jars are covered by an inch of water.  Boil  in water bath for 10 minutes.  Remove jars and place on a rack to cool.  Within a few minutes, the lids should “pop” and the button at the center will compress.  This lets you know it is sealed.  If it does not compress, boil for another ten minutes in a water bath.  Allow sealed jars to cool undisturbed for 24 hours.  Screw the rings on tightly and store in a cool, dry place for at least a month before opening.

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Sangria Starter Kit: Bridal Shower or Hostess Gift

sangria kit title

This week has been packed with prep work: planning, cooking, and freezing lunches to carry M and I through camp, and finalizing registrations, schedules, and musical numbers, and learning choreography at work.  Punc has come in to the office almost every day as we squeeze in as much time with her as possible.  Luckily, our roommates’ work schedules are fairly light over the summer, so she will spend a lot of time with people in spite of M’s and my long days.  She’ll also get at least one trip to Grandma’s house to play with the other dogs for a few days.  Luckily, with such diligence during the week, I’ve been able to keep these final weekends mostly clear for some fun before camp begins.  Tomorrow, M and I will probably go out to a local wine festival after a trip to the Farmer’s Market, and on Sunday I plan to do a little more prep cooking and some final cleaning, but should still be pretty relaxing.

sangria kit recipes

Last weekend, M was wrapped up in work, but I was able to spend Saturday going up to see E and watch roller derby and also to attend a bridal shower for A, one of my close friends from high school.  A was one of the first people I met at HHS, several weeks before the start of freshman year during color guard camp.  She and I can spend months apart, and pick right up where we left off whenever we do get together.  Her fiancé actually went to high school with M (out of my close friends-group, 3 of us have ended up with RHS boys, to our amusement).  I am exceedingly excited for their wedding in the fall, where there reception will be on A’s fiancé’s boat (yes, he is a captain).  It should be very fun, indeed.  Intentionally or not, I’ve made all of A’s engagement milestones–we happened to get the old crowd together for David’s birthday dinner just a few days after A’s fiancé proposed, and were among the first to marvel at the ring.  I also made a mad dash, defying several traffic jams, to see her pick out the dress.  And I’ve been avidly following her wedding boards on Pinterest.  Needless to say, I was so happy to make it to her shower and catch up with old friends between bridal bingo and toilet-paper-dress competitions (I partnered up with A’s niece-to-be and we ran a strong game, let me tell you.  Competition beware!)

sangria kit top

I wanted to do something fun for A’s bridal shower gift.  While her ModCloth wedding registry was full of amazing items–can we pause and  appreciate that ModCloth does wedding registries?!  I had no idea!–I had been ruminating over some kind of “kit”.  I turned to Pinterest, and discovered all sorts of baking kits and kitchen towel cakes.  But, I knew A was living in a fairly-furnished house (she probably had oven mitts), and I knew that, at this point in time, she probably did not want 27 kitchen towels.  Plus, I wanted a little more pizzazz.  She did have a few pitchers on her registries, and while I was perusing the kitchen items in the store, I came up with an idea: A Sangria Starter Kit.  A pitcher, a nice big spoon, a citrus juicer, some wine charms, a bottle of wine, and other fun accouterments.  Perfect!

I found the largest pitcher that I could, but it still took a little bit of wheedling and careful adjustments to get most of the kit to fit inside of the pitcher.

sangra kit materials

In addition to the pitcher, I picked up a really nice wooden spoon, a nice ceramic citrus juicer/reamer, the most adorable kitchen towel, a bottle of red with a cute label, and a wine stopper with removable wine-glass-markers.  I also found a tiny, fun lantern and citronella tea lights.  Since sangria makes me think of outside patios, decks, balconies, etc, I decided to add those in, too.  I also wrote up three recipe cards for sangria: a red sangria, a white sangria, and an unusual sangria–in this case a cucumber-based batch that sounded super refreshing.

sangria kit close up

To start, I removed the tea lights from their packaging and filled up the lantern.  Then I started seeing how I could fit the items together inside the pitcher.  I wanted to keep the wine stopper-marker combo in its packaging for the directions, but I would have had a bit more room if I had removed that packaging as well.  Ultimately, I found that if I placed the wine stopper box and the juicer in the pitcher, I could tilt the pitcher and/or use the spoon to push them against the side while I slid the wine bottle inside the pitcher. The bottle does take up a fair amount of space within the bowl of the pitcher.  Then I could wedge the towel in to cushion the bottle and keep everything stable.  Finally, the spoon could just fit in the spout of the pitcher.  I tied the recipes around the outside.  I thought about trying to tie the lantern as well, but everything was more stable with it staying separate.  I also didn’t want anything to catch while she was trying to remove  the wrapping.

sangria kit together

All in all, I was quite happy with this little kit.  The biggest advice I can offer is to find the largest pitcher possible: more room to pack up the kit, and, ultimately, more sangria.  I also liked that I could pass on handwritten recipes.  This would also make a very cute hostess gift.  It could easily be modified into a margarita kit: replace the wine with margarita mix (and tequila, if you can fit both bottles) and the wine stopper with a package of flavored salt or sugar for rimming the glasses.

sangria kit back view

Sangria Starter Kit

  • large pitcher
  • bottle of wine
  • citrus juicer/reamer
  • wine stopper
  • wine glass charms/markers
  • wooden spoon
  • kitchen towel(s)
  • lantern (optional)
  • candles (optional)
  • recipe cards
  • twine

Assemble as many items into pitcher.  Secure remaining items, or package together.  Write sangria recipes on cards and secure around pitcher.  Let the party begin!


Berry-Lemon Syrup

lemon berry pancakes top

I hope everyone had a beautiful Mother’s Day weekend!  I finished up our last showcase on Saturday, which went perfectly smoothly, and now has me calm and collected for the six weeks of prep work and school classes remaining before summer camp.  Sunday was nice an simple, with the mum and the mom (and the brother and friends) coming over for a barbecue.  I marinated some Buttermilk-Dijon Chicken and then passed it over to M to grill with some quick-rubbed ribs and asparagus while I baked a vegetable gratin and beautiful little pots de cremes that surprised even me with their simplicity.  Both will soon be appearing on the blog sooooon!  I did not take pictures on Mother’s Day, but that just mean I will have to make both recipes again!  Such a shame! (Once again, I am longing for a sarcasm font).

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Spring has been fickle here.  Since we didn’t get any snow until March, I can’t say that I’m surprise that we’ve been switching from torrential downpours, to gusty gray chills, to sticky, hot humidity over the past two weeks.  The only reliable feat of weather was that, when we had to load or unload props and set pieces, the rain would begin.  Usually in earnest.  Ugh.

But the past two days have been sweltering, in spite of the storm warnings.   I think that now, in May, spring may finally have arrived, just in time to shift to summer (I’m knocking on the table right now).  And I have finally let go of the warming soups and squash dishes of winter.  I’m embracing zucchini, craving berries, peaches, and bright green salads.  Though M and I are pretty firmly into a bacon-and-eggs breakfast rut (I’m now out of fruit and yogurt  and can’t bring myself to make oatmeal on warm mornings), when I had the extra time to spare I threw together some doctored-up GF Bisquick pancakes.  But only after the batter was mixed, did I remember that we had no syrup in the house.  We still don’t…it’s one of the those strange pantry essentials that always get missed when making the grocery list.

lemon berry syrup jar 2

But we did have berries and lemons, and I figured I could whip up something without much trouble.  I happen to love pancakes, especially GF Bisquick’s (I’m withholding my raving for the moment), plain, but I know that I may be in the minority there.  Plus, when I have a morning to make pancakes, I’m practically going all out.  This berry-lemon syrup really is just fruit steeped in a simple syrup.  Crushing the fruit releases some juices, but the boiling and simmering really infuses the flavors.  I set my batch simmering and was able to cook my pancake batter in the 15-20 minute simmer time.  A quick strain and a stir was all that was left separating this fruity syrup from soft, warm pancakes.  Try this for breakfast, it’ll definitely give your day a good start!

lemon berry pancake bite 2

Berry-Lemon Syrup

  • 2 c. mixed berries*
  • Juice + zest of 1 large lemon (2-4 tbsp juice, up to 1 Tbsp of zest)
  • 3/4 c. water
  • 3/4 c. sugar (agave/honey would be fine, just needs more reducing time)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

*I used a mix of blueberries and strawberries, but any combo, or even just 2 cups of one kind of berry, should work just fine.

Use a potato masher or a fork to mash the berries in a medium sauce pan.  Add water, stir well and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Boil for five minutes.  Add in sugar, stir until dissolved.  Stir in lemon zest.  Bring back to a boil, then reduce heat to med-low to simmer for 15-20 minutes.  Strain fruit from syrup.  If a thicker consistency is desired, return syrup to pot and continue to reduce until desired consistency is reached.  Remove syrup from heat, stir in lemon juice and vanilla extract into syrup.  Serve warm.

This syrup will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for up to two weeks.  Try it on pancakes, oatmeal, yogurt, ice cream–anything you can think of!  I also reserved my strained fruit pulp to add to smoothies, but you can discard the pulp, if you wish.

 


Summer lunch

 

If I could eat some combination of a cheese plate and charcuterie for every meal for the rest of my life, I would be happy.  Its not the best of plans, if I stop to think about it long enough, but occasionally, I do give into that desire.

 

 

I can’t bring myself to cook anything during the day, at this time of the year.  It’s too hot with the oven or stove on.  So my lunch today (and probably tomorrow, unless I have very strong willpower) was simple: 1 ounce mozzarella cheese, 1 plum tomato, several basil leaves drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, three slices thin-cut salami, half a dozen olives, the baby potato & two stalks of asparagus from last night’s leftovers, and watermelon.  Perfection.