After my vacation, when I could blissfully expect others to take over the reins at the stove and produce any number of delicious things (rabbit with rosemary or homemade tagliatelle with meat ragu and fresh peas, for example); where melons and apricots and tomatoes and zucchini tasted like the versions of themselves that we dream they should taste of; and yeasty pizza al taglio and flaky piadine and freshly made sheeps-milk ricotta - light as a cloud and almost quivery - abounded with plenty, it is an understatement to say that I had little interest in getting back to the kitchen.
I am probably preaching to an already-convinced choir that home cooking in Italy, where ingredients practically pulse with flavor and juice and freshness, completely surpasses any attempts I might make to approximate it in my kitchen here in New York. Over there, roasted tomatoes topped with chips of browned garlic, homemade bread crumbs from the unsalted loaves of the region and feathery wild fennel fronds, all bathed in a broth of olive oil and cooking juices, tasted of summer and sunshine and earth. If I attempted those here - even with the tomatoes of the Greenmarket - nothing as good would (could!) emerge.
So, it's taking me a few days to get back into the swing of things - to find my appetite for shopping, preparing, cooking and eating again. I'll find my hunger for all of this, I'm sure. But I'm still reveling in my memories of last week: of our dining room table crowded with the family I see too infrequently, of quickly-melting cones of gelato in the afternoon, of floral-scented berries plucked off the vines in the early morning hours when dew dappled all the grasses, of beach food that came in the form of homemade chitarrine with tiny squid and clams and shrimps, and of those roasted tomatoes that tasted so much like home.
Ben and I are off to Maine this weekend - I think a few days of New England summer food (corn! lobsters! blueberries!) and some bracing ocean air will be good medicine. And when Ben's mother invited us over for dinner at her place last night, I figured that preparing our dessert would be just the thing to get this cooking-shtick of mine back in gear. I chose to make a fruit crisp - laden with plump summer fruits. The recipe comes from the owner of Manhattan's Pearl Oyster Bar (and the ex-girlfriend of the owner of Pearl's undisputed rival, Mary's Fish Camp - oh, restaurant intrigue, is there anything better?) and was published in the New York Times three years ago.
I loved the combination of fat blackberries and aromatic nectarines. But the recipe was off. There was far too much sugar listed: a half-cup tossed with the nectarines would have been tooth-achingly sweet. I used just a tablespoon and found it to be plenty. Also, while the topping looked just fine raw, it all but melted into a cinnamon-flavored paste while in the oven. Yes, the flavor and texture of the jammy berries and ripe nectarines was luscious, but this was no crisp, as far as I'm concerned. A grunt? Perhaps. If you want a foolproof crisp topping, use Chris Kimball's from The Best Recipe. It holds up its shape and is delicious.
Rebecca Charles' Blackberry Nectarine Crisp
7 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups nectarines, pitted, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 large nectarines)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (I used 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 heaping cup whole blackberries
Vanilla ice cream
1. Butter a 2-quart baking dish or six 8-ounces ramekins with 1 tablespoon of butter. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor, pulse flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt once or twice to mix. Cut remaining butter into small chunks, add to flour mixture and pulse a few more times, until mixture just comes together into small crumbly clumps. Reserve.
2. In a large bowl, combine nectarines, granulated sugar and vanilla. Pour nectarines into baking dish or ramekins, scatter blackberries on top and sprinkle with the processed mixture. Bake 45 minutes, until bubbling. Serve immediately with vanilla ice cream.