I recently finished reading Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach for our first book club discussion, and thought it would be fitting to cook a couple of his recipes to enhance the experience. Since the book is sectioned by season, I flipped through the “Spring” recipes for ideas. Right off the bat there was a recipe that appealed to me in the Onions chapter for a grilled cheese with onions. Like me, I’m sure most of you don’t need a recipe for grilled cheese; for me the recipe was more a reminder of how great a simple combo like cheese and onions can be. He dresses it up a bit by using a fancy cheese, and dressing the onions in a little champagne vinegar and parsley. The other recipe I chose, Asparagus-Shrimp risotto, was dictated by the fact that asparagus is just about the only seasonal Michigan produce you can get in the farmers’ markets right now (with the exception of rhubarb, which was not in the book).
Parsons’ grilled cheese is meant to be cut into strips and served as an appetizer with wine or (as he suggests) Champagne. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to eschew an opportunity to drink Champagne, but the only chance I had to make this was at lunch, alone, and seeing as how I had other chores to do that day, the Champagne was not an option. Anyhow, the basics are: white bread with the crusts trimmed (I left mine on), very thinly sliced sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla Walla, whatever) marinated in a splash of Champagne vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), chopped parsley, and some soft cheese (he suggests Taleggio, Brie or Taleme; I used Fontina). Something I learned from the book is that sweet onions aren’t any “sweeter” than cooking onions; they just contain much less of the sulfurous compound that makes onions taste oniony. It’s really kind of pointless to even cook with them, since what little onion flavor they have dissipates with cooking. My Vidalias were so mild that I put an entire 1/2 onion on my sandwich and for my taste, it still could have used more onion flavor. I was also a little disappointed in the Fontina; despite the fancy Euro name, it tasted almost exactly like Monterey Jack (but of course cost more). I think a slightly more assertive cheese would be my preference if I made this again. Either that, or I’d put a little Dijon mustard on it. I also added a sprinkle of salt and pepper to my onions before putting them on the sandwich. With a green salad, it was a simple but satisfying lunch, if not altogether nutritious.
The Asparagus-Shrimp risotto was also familiar ground, but I thought I would try his method of making a simple, light stock out of the trimmings rather than use the usual chicken stock. I have to say, though, 1/4 lb shrimp does not make for a heck of a lot of shrimp shells, so don’t expect a pronounced seafood flavor. I actually save shrimp shells in the freezer for occasions such as this, though, so I was able to amp it up a little. (I used more than 1/4 lb shrimp, too- more like 1/3 or 1/2 lb.)
You probably know the drill with making risotto, but to sum up the recipe: 2 cups arborio rice, 1 1/4 lb asparagus (skinny works well for this recipe), 1/4 lb shrimp (or more), 1 onion, 9 cups H2O, 1/2 c dry white wine, 4 tbs butter, a few tbs Parmigiano. Trim the asparagus, reserve the tips and cut the stems into 1/3-inch rounds. Dice the onion and shell the shrimp; put the trimmings from the above ingredients into a stockpot with the water and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Melt 3 tbs butter in a large skillet and add the asparagus stems and onion and cook until onion begins to soften; add 2 cups arborio rice and cook another 5 min or so. Add wine and cook until evaporated. Start adding the hot stock, about 3 ladles’ worth at a time, ladling it through a strainer, stirring as it cooks down, repeating the process as the stock gets absorbed. Before the final addition of stock, add the raw shrimp and asparagus tips. I like to cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces, so that it’s more evenly distributed through the risotto, but also so it cooks in the same time as the asparagus tips. Since the stock is unsalted, you’ll need to add a fair amount of salt, which you can do at this stage. According to Parsons, your result should be fairly soupy (it does tend to thicken up a bit as it sits). Add the final tbs butter and the cheese, and enjoy with a green salad (I made a lemon-Dijon- Parmigiano vinaigrette) and a crisp glass of white.
Pop quiz: a) What fruits and vegetables should you NEVER refrigerate? b) Which ones should you wash before refrigerating? c) What is the difference between climacteric and non-climacteric fruits?* You’ll find the answers to these questions and much more in Russ Parsons’ book How to Pick a Peach. A follow-up to his book How to Read a French Fry, which explored questions of “kitchen science”, How to Pick a Peach sets out to educate the produce consumer on how to choose, store and prepare produce, while also giving great background information on how we arrived at the selection we have today in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets. The book is organized by seasons, and each chapter covers a particular item or family of items (for example, apples get their own chapter; broccoli & cauliflower are grouped together). The bulk of the chapters discuss the history of that food, how it came to be developed, farmed, distributed, etc. Each chapter ends with short segments labeled How to Choose, How to Store, How to Prepare, and One Simple Dish. Three to four recipes are given for each chapter that highlight that chapter’s fruit or vegetable. The chapters are interspersed with article-length segments such as “When it’s OK to buy Unripe Fruit”.
I thought this book would be a good choice as we head into that time of year when the farmers’ markets start to get into full swing. Although I have a pretty good idea of what is in season when, this book was definitely a great refresher course. Not only that, but I learned some things that surprised me and will certainly make me change my habits, especially in regards to storing food. I also very much enjoyed reading the histories of the different paths that our produce and farming practices have taken over the years. Some of it is a bit depressing, such as reading about how many items are bred purely with shipping and storage concerns in mind, but overall the book had a positive tone, highlighting many instances where flavor is winning out over durability or aesthetics. The subtitle of the book is “The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table”, and Parsons does focus on informing us about what varieties of certain fruits or veggies are especially known for good flavor. His instructions on selecting and storing produce are also geared not only towards avoiding spoilage, but optimizing flavor as well. I think what I will ultimately take from this book is a positive sense that we are slowly but surely heading back towards the right direction, as well as some crib notes to keep in my wallet until I have the whole climacteric/ non-climacteric thing memorized! (In fact, the book could have been greatly improved by including a tear-out pocket guide… perhaps an idea for future editions?)
Recipes: The recipes Parsons provides are nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to get a few ideas at the end of a chapter, and most of the recipes are easy and “familiar” enough that you could knock them out without a lot of fuss or advance planning. I made two recipes from the book, a grilled cheese with onions and an asparagus risotto, which you can read about here.
*a) Never refrigerate potatoes, onions or tomatoes; b) You shouldn’t wash anything before refrigerating; the moisture causes breakdown and more rapid spoilage to occur; c) climacteric fruits can ripen after being picked, while non-climacteric fruits need to be picked at their ripest and will not improve after picking.
Discussion questions: (please feel free to answer one, a few, or all!)
- Why do you think Parsons selected a peach as his title fruit, rather than a pear, plum, or some vegetable?
- Generations ago, a book like this probably would not have been necessary. The smaller amount of items available would have meant that the average person would not have needed the breadth of knowledge that we do when we go to the supermarket. We now have a disconnect from many items because they are not local and thus less familiar, and therefore we find ourselves in a position of having to “re-educate” ourselves as consumers. Is the greater variety worth the trade-off? How much time and effort are you willing to spend to ensure that you are selecting the best possible produce?
- One of the topics discussed in the book is the supply chain and how it affects what varieties are propagated. How important is it to you to have a wider variety of items, some shipped from across the country or imported, versus having better quality items that can be found locally?
- It stands to reason that if consumers stopped buying flavorless peaches, tomatoes, etc, growers would be forced to adapt. Why and how did people become disinterested about the flavor of their food? How much blame, if any, should be placed on the average consumer (or the farmers) for the quality of produce found in our grocery stores today?
- What do you think the future holds for the flavor of fruits and vegetables, the way the supply chain functions, and for the overall quality of our food?