Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Pressure to Cook Seasonally

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am finding that I have some anxiety related to some imagined pressure I feel to take full advantage of seasonal produce. I’ve said it so many times that some might even call it annoying, but I love to cook seasonally. This can be challenging at the end of autumn, in the depths of winter and in the early weeks of spring, especially when one lives in a part of the world where basically nothing grows from October through April. The end of the summer and the beginning of autumn, though, should be a seasonal eater’s dream. Gardens are bursting with the supple red globes of tomatoes, the shiny and colourful skin of peppers, and the slightly obscene shapes of cucumbers, hidden beneath broad green leaves. At farmer’s markets, every table is overflowing with the local harvest, and even at the grocery store, it’s no challenge to find a cornucopia of lovely local produce. So in this heaven of plentiful fresh, local fruits and vegetables, how could I possibly complain?
Sometimes, it just seems like too much. I love the variety of different summer squash I’ve been seeing lately at the farmer’s market, and I imagine what I could do with it, but then oh! Look at those yummy cherry tomatoes—I’ll have to get some of those as well. And then there’s the corn, the eggplants, the cucumbers, the peppers, and the fruit as well. Bright little berries, ripe round peaches that make you swoon when you take a whiff, and richly coloured plums that you know will be the sweetest of the year. I buy it all, and I scramble to use it all up in salads and sauces, omelettes and stir-fries, compotes, and pies. There isn’t always enough time, though, and tragically, some of that beautiful seasonal bounty seems to always be lost to rot.
The solution is simple, of course: only buy as much food as Andrew and I can eat before it will go bad. Maybe don’t buy every possible squash next time, and also, perhaps it would be best to get raspberries or blackberries, rather than both. When I do that, though, I always feel as though I’m missing out. It’s as if I’ve let some golden opportunity slip through my fingers by not snatching up every delicious fruit or vegetable that catches my eye. This is the source of my anxiety.
What I’m trying to do is to find some middle ground. I try to buy the best stuff, and then I look for different ways to enjoy it. Sometimes this means eating the produce as-is, sometimes it means discovering new ways of preparing fruits and vegetables, and sometimes it means returning to favourite recipes again and again because I know how well the showcase these beautiful fresh foods.
Going back to favourite recipes and repeating them does not necessarily mean that they will be the same each time. Recipes can be adjusted and altered to utilize whatever is on hand at that moment. Strawberry season is just about done here in the Pacific Northwest, but peach season is in full swing. This means I can go back to that old favourite, Strawberry Shortcake, but with a peach-y twist. I, for one, was not surprised at all to learn that peaches go equally well with sweet whipped cream and dense, flaky shortcake as strawberries always have.
Any strawberry shortcake recipe could be adjusted to use different fruits, but at the moment, I’m partial to this one from Food & Wine magazine. It’s specifically a peach shortcake recipe, which, of course, could be turned into an anything shortcake recipe … even strawberries!

Peach Shortcake with Vanilla-Peach Whipped Cream
Adapted from Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 2011, p 300
Makes one 9” x 13” cake

2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus more for buttering the dish
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tbsp. milk, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups plus ¼ cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup peach schnapps, divided
8 peaches, cut into wedges
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the milk until frothy. Add the 1 1/3 cups of sugar; beat at high speed until the mixture is thick and pale, about 5 minutes.

In a bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture; fold in the melted butter until incorporated. Spread the batter in the prepared dish; bake in the centre of the oven for about 30 minutes, until golden. Transfer to a rack and let cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the remaining ¼ cup sugar with a ½ cup of the peach schnapps. Stir in the peaches and let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In a bowl, whip the cream with the confectioner’s sugar, remaining ½ cup of peach schnapps and the vanilla until firm. Cut the shortcake into squares and serve with the peaches and whipped cream.