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Midsummer madness

Looking for peak flavor from the season's great produce? Forget about the grill.

July 26, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

ONE particularly sauna-ish day a friend mentions he is eating nothing but raw food right now because turning on the stove just feels like too much effort. It sounds a bit extreme, but he could be even more uninspired. He could be doing nothing but grilling.

Hot weather combined with perfect produce seems to make most cooks stow away technique for the summer. Everything is so good simply washed or charred that it's easy to slip into a robotic routine, shuffling between the salad spinner and the Weber.

But an amazing thing happens when you apply cooking methods more common in other seasons, or for other reasons, to the best ingredients these peak months have to offer. Flavors get more intense, textures are transformed and the element of surprise becomes a secret ingredient at a time when excess-induced ennui is setting in with even the sweetest corn and most succulent berries.

Braising, for instance, is what you normally do with tough cuts of meat that need long, slow cooking in other months of the year. But at the height of summer it can be the best method of quickly infusing deep flavor in vegetables or even fruit, whether green beans or cherries.

Stewing is another technique that conjures hours-long investments in meat, but in summer it works fast on stone fruit and berries in a compote, or on zucchini and tomatoes in a side dish (or main course when you add eggplant and onion to make ratatouille).

Then there is pickling, an ancient summer concept, traditionally done to save time in a bottle in a world before refrigerators. Cucumbers or peaches or carrots could be canned and stored on a shelf for the long months of winter. Today, an inconvenient truth is that we can have anything anytime and don't need to pickle except for flavor reasons.

Quick pickling brings acidity and crispness into the equation, literally transforming vegetables (and fruits) that are starting to feel boring cooked any other way. When you try it, even okra tastes irresistible.

Back to basics

I first started going back to these basics earlier this summer after laying the 15th bunch of asparagus out on the counter and realizing I could not face it steamed or roasted one more time. When I opened my refrigerator door looking for inspiration, one of the six bottles of flavored oils and nut oils fell forward and I realized they might have more impact if added at the beginning of cooking rather than at the end.

And that made me think of braising (technically, it means searing something in fat, then adding a nominal amount of liquid and cooking to tenderness). Just a tablespoon of pistachio oil heated in a saute pan and tossed with a bunch of asparagus tips and a good sprinkling of coarse sea salt imparted a deep underlying flavor. I could have continued by sauteing, but the high heat would have dissipated the lovely nuttiness of the oil.

Instead, I poured in a little water, covered the pan and let the spears cook until they were just tender, then took off the lid and left them to almost char. When they were done, they had a warm undertone of pistachio and no grease and needed nothing except a little pepper to be perfect.

Quick braising, though, is a superb technique for most summer vegetables. You could add a whole stick of melted butter to a bowlful of steamed sugar snap peas or zucchini or green beans and never get the full, rich, inherent flavor achieved by braising in just a whisper of nut oil.

Corn and chanterelles are two great seasonal highs that combined will always be transcendent, but braise them and they are both transformed. (Ditto for corn and Swiss chard.)

You can also braise some surprising other things, such as scallions or sliced (and seeded) cucumbers, and make them even richer by stirring in a little cream or sour cream at the end. Favas are also superbly suited to braising, which concentrates their nutty taste.

Braising will also soften and concentrate the flavor of fruit if you substitute unsalted butter for the oil, and a fruity wine, brandy or liqueur for the water. Braised peaches, mangos, apricots, plums or cherries are all great possibilities, almost melting with sweetness with or without ice cream.

Stewing is even better for fruit because it involves more liquid than braising does, and with sugar and spices and the inherent juices forms a thin sauce that will ooze into a poundcake or onto ice cream or even fresh ricotta, the greatest companion for warm summer fruit since creme fraiche.

A sweet stew

TO make a compote, which is the fancy way of saying fruit stew, you just boil sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the fruit of your choice. Flavorings such as a cinnamon stick, whole allspice berries or cloves, fresh ginger or strips of lime or lemon zest can infuse the syrup, and alcohol increases the potency and gives body (rum, Bourbon, kirsch and framboise are possibilities, depending on the main ingredient).

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