Archive for August, 2010

French Peach Tart

August 27, 2010

The best peaches in the world grow in the high desert of Western Colorado. As the Colorado River snakes along the barren foothills at the base of the rock-sheeted Bookcliffs, an Eden-like valley extends from Palisade to Fruita. There, hot, arid days, cool nights and mountainside winter protection create an ideal spot for vines and stone fruit.

The vines came fist when early Seventh Day Adventists planted vineyards for “medicinal” juices. Prohibition knocked the domestic wine business out of play, and the Grand Valley filled with peach, pear, apricot and apple orchards. In the Colorado peach heyday of the 1940s and 50s, Union Pacific trains stopped at big platforms where tons of peaches, each wrapped in tissue paper and nestled in rectangular wooden 20-pound lug boxes, were loaded and moved to Eastern markets. Fickle weather and the power of California agribusiness pushed the fledgling Colorado peach industry out of the competitive national nest, but peaches delicious enough to encourage a trip still flourish in the valley.

I grew up with these peaches. We had tree-ripened peaches from July through September, then canned peaches the rest of the year. I never tired of them, and for the rest of my life away from the valley, I’ve found a few that are tasty, though none match the perfection of a Palisade peach.

Each summer I envision a French peach tart with a crisp buttery crust, intense peach flavor and a blushing glaze. All too often the crust is soggy and the peaches lack flavor, but the following recipe offers a well-tested formula. This season our peach tarts using Michigan fruit have been lovely.

French Peach Tart

1 ¼ cups scooped, leveled all purpose flour (6 oz.)

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

1 stick cold unsalted butter (4 oz.)

2 tablespoons ice water

1 ½-2 pounds ripe fresh peaches

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons apricot jam or apple jelly

2 teaspoons honey

Make pastry: Sift flour, sugar and salt into wide bowl. Slice in cold butter and work quickly with fingers to flaky crumble. Remove ½ cup of crumble and set aside. Fork ice water into remaining crumble and draw together into ball of dough. Shape into inch-thick disk (4 inches by 1 inch), wrap and chill at least an hour.

Roll pastry and fit into 9-inch glass pie plate or tart tin. Trim and flute edge; chill 1 hour or place in freezer 10 minutes. (To prevent shrinking, pastry must have time to relax before baking.)

If peaches are fully ripe, skins will pull off easily. Otherwise scald in boiling water a few seconds before peeling. (If peaches have a thin, rosy, fuzz-free skin, they do not need peeling.) Halve fruit, remove pits, cut each half into 6 or 8 even crescent segments. Preheat oven to 375° for glass dish or 400° for a metal tin. Sprinkle reserved pastry crumble in bottom of rolled, chilled pie shell (this will thicken peach juice and prevent soggy pastry) and arrange peach slices close together in neat concentric circles on top of crumble. Make one layer only. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar and bake for 35-40 minutes. Crust should be nicely browned and peaches tender.

Boil jam or jelly plus honey to a glaze. Brush or spoon hot glaze over hot peaches as soon as tart is removed from oven. Serves 6-8.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


Tomato Braised Beans

August 25, 2010

Mama sat on the back step, a bucket between her knees, snipping beans. Late summer meant heaps of beans, and green beans meant well-cooked beans with bacon: tender beans, bits of smoky pork and pot liquor as good as soup. Those were the days when the concept of “crisp tender” was still on the nouvelle horizon, and we loved the soft, salty beans.

Now I pick most of my beans when they’re slim and cook them quickly, no more than four minutes. I drizzle them with a little extra virgin olive oil or sweet butter. Following their brief trip from the vine to table, they’re perfect. Yet any gardener or bean picker will tell you beans are sometimes hard to find. There are always a few lurking in the leaves and missed the first time around. Even just a day or two later, they’ve grown well past the slim stage and are ready for soup or a stew.

As I sort through my bowl of garden beans, I separate the young beans to be briefly cooked from the more mature beans that need the old-fashioned bacon-broth-boil, along with a few red potatoes or a zesty Mediterranean braise. This braise includes the bounty of summer’s produce, including onions, garlic, fresh herbs, tomatoes and peppers. It keeps for days and is good for a light meal with a dollop of yogurt or a slice of cheese and some good toast. Or else it makes an excellent side dish either warm or at room temperature.

Tomato Braised Green Beans

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 medium green, red or yellow pepper, seeded and diced

2 clove garlic, finely chopped

few slices hot chili (optional)

small handful fresh herbs, chopped or ½ teaspoon dry thyme

3 ripe tomatoes peeled, seeded and chopped, 1 ¼ cups

1 pound fresh green beans

pinch sugar

salt to taste

In a heavy braising pot, warm olive oil, add onion and pepper. Sauté gently until softened. Add garlic, optional chili and fresh herbs (whatever you have: parsley, oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, rosemary). Once garlic and herbs give off their fragrance, add diced tomatoes, salt, sugar, cover and simmer 10 minutes or until tomatoes have pulped.

Wash beans, break off tip of stem end only (leave blossom end intact), and cut or break beans into 2-inch pieces. Add beans to simmering tomato mixture, stir well, and cook about 20 minutes or until beans are tender. Taste for seasoning. Serve hot, room temperature or cold. Always better the next day. Good recipe to double.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

Tortilla Chips

August 14, 2010

When ruffled glass candy bowls commonly waited on coffee tables, cups of salted nuts and glasses of iced celery sticks often arrived with drinks. The Dip Revolution brought dried onion soup dip, clam dip, dill dip. Calories piled on with cream cheese, sour cream and potato chips until the Fat Squad turned our eyes toward leaner salsas and corn chips. All chip makers claim to use the best oil for your health, and all tout the same number of calories per serving. But I’ve found the best oil when I’ve selected and measured it myself. A great fan of the simple Mexican corn tortilla, I’ve been searching for the prime corn chip, and now think I have it.

First I need good corn tortillas. Here in Chicagoland with a large Latino population, we see superb Mexican products in many food markets. My favorite tortilla brand is El Milagro; as its name implies, it’s a “miracle” of flavor. Currently a dozen fresh corn tortillas sell for forty to fifty cents, a bargain.

With my pack of twelve tortillas and two tablespoons of good olive oil plus a few pinches of kosher salt, I’m in business. I use one hand to drizzle the oil, sprinkle the salt and the other hand to spread the oil. With the stack of tortillas on a cutting board in front of me, I swirl about ½ teaspoon olive oil on a tortilla, spread the oil over the entire surface, sprinkle with salt and top with the next tortilla. When all twelve have been oiled and salted, I divide the pile into two stacks of six. I slice each stack in half, then cut each half into thirds. Each tortilla makes six equal triangles. I spread the triangles, oiled side up, in a single layer on sheet pans and bake them in a moderate oven about fifteen minutes or until the chips feel crisp. I turn off the oven and allow them to crisp up even more as the oven cools. Actually the tortilla chips will bake at almost any temperature. If the oven is hotter, they will cook faster; if lower, they will take longer.

Just keep checking. Once the chips are crisp and cool, tip them into a cookie tin and store them until you’re ready to serve them with homemade guacamole or salsa. You’ll find the chips great tasting with fewer than half the calories of the fried brands.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

Summer Sandwich

August 2, 2010

Everyone has a food phobia. Mine is the sandwich. What unmentionable part of animal could be disguised as deli meat lurking inside?  What sort of syrupy, artificially colored vegetable could be pickled and stuck in?  Even scarier might be the pungent smell, the sugar and vinegary taste and the oiliness of Miracle Whip or a similar commercial spread used as a dressing.  I don’t know where it came from but this dread goes farther back than I can remember.

My mother feared someone had forced me to eat this dressing in a playgroup when I was very young. The only sandwich I packed for school lunchs was peanut butter, and my brothers delighted in chasing me around the yard with an opened Miracle Whip jar. I knew it wouldn’t kill me, but I’d choose to starve rather than to let that vile substance pass my lips. While most people consider a good sandwich shop a delight, I’ve always abstained.

I was long convinced I would never move beyond peanut butter and jam in the sandwich kingdom. Then one day in a dusty bookshop on the other side of the world, I found a paperback copy of Lesley Blanch’s 1956 classic Round The World In Eighty Dishes. Therein the Provencal Roquebrune Tartine introduced me to the Pan Bagna or vegetable stuffed “bathed bread,” and I found my sandwich.

A crusty French loaf split horizontally, moistened with good olive oil and a touch of vinegar, filled with summer tomatoes, black olives, a few anchovies, fresh herbs, some mild onion and a few cooked green beans. Tied up with string, wrapped in waxed paper and allowed to sit for an hour, it’s the perfect picnic. It can go anywhere; it contains nothing that will spoil in a day; it’s light and totally yummy.  Pan Bagna also works as party fare when sliced into smaller servings and served with drinks.

The recipe has no specific set of ingredients beyond the bread, the oil and vinegar. It should have anchovies which kick the flavor way up, but you could leave them out if you must. You definitely need fresh summer tomatoes; from there on you can use what you have.

My Pan Bagna

1 12 oz. baguette

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

l clove garlic crushed with a pinch of salt

dab Dijon mustard

1-2 thinly sliced tomatoes

3-4 anchovy fillets

handful pitted Kalamata olives

2-3 chopped scallions or thin slices sweet onion

handful tender blanched green beans

strips roasted red pepper

fresh basil and parsley

heavy white string for tying.

Split the baguette and rub the crusty edges with the garlic clove.  Prepare a vinaigrette dressing with the next 4 ingredients.  (Crush garlic in salt; stir in vinegar and mustard, blend in oil.)

Drizzle a tablespoon of vinaigrette over each inside segment of the bread. Layer on sliced tomatoes, and all remaining ingredients. Drizzle over the rest of the vinaigrette, top with some more sliced tomatoes.

Cover vegetables with bread top. Press loaf together and tie in four places with 14-inch pieces of strong cotton string. Wrap the sandwich snugly in waxed paper and pack it away in a picnic box or allow it to rest under a cutting board for an hour or so.

Cut in half, quarters or one-inch slices.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at