This week, I’ve been very mindful of cooking. I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, which I can only describe as Zen cooking. It’s made me aware of what I throw away, what is in my fridge, or on my counter, and what can be thrown together, reused, re-purposed. Using produce from the CSA and my own garden, and a few ingredients I purchased, I’ve put together balanced meals – balanced days – but more on all of that later. I have to finish the book first.
On a related note, we got the new issue of Fine Cooking, one of my new favorite cooking magazines. It has practical advice, great recipes, beautiful pictures, and is very purposeful about using seasonal ingredients and educating home chefs.
In Fine Cooking, there was a recipe for Sugar-Roasted Peaches. Okay, let’s just be real for a second. I’m from Georgia. I’ve been compared to peaches at many points during my life (it is the birthright of anyone born in the Peach State). And I love peaches – peach wine, peach ice cream, peach in salads, in baked goods, or just in my hand, eaten over the sink.
So when I saw the recipe for Sugar-Roasted Peaches (or really, when Amanda pulled me aside and slid the magazine in front of me and said, ‘look! sugar-roasted peaches!’), I knew it was the perfect destination for the lovely peaches I got in this week’s CSA.
This recipe mixes peaches, pitted and caramelized in a cast-iron skillet, in bacon fat, then roasted in the oven with sprigs of rosemary and pieces of bacon. Salt, pepper, and raw sugar. Peaches. Bacon. Rosemary. That’s it. Simple. All ingredients I had on hand. Plus, bonus, a chance to use my cast-iron skillet.
Yesterday, I spent a very quiet day at home, listening to the rain outside, trying to stay busy to avoid thinking too much about what day it was, the anniversary of my brother passing away eleven years ago, a day that took me completely out of commission last year. I kept my hands busy, washing dishes, eating, making coffee, writing, doing a quick run on the treadmill. Unloading boxes. Picking tomatoes before the rain set in. Sitting on the garage floor as the rain poured just outside, planting basil seeds and cilantro seeds in small metal planters, my stab at a new herb garden to replace our sun-scorched one. My theory is usually that if I can stay busy, I can stay ahead of my grief, like trying to outrun a storm.
It did no good. By mid-afternoon, I was sinking into melancholia, and I went downstairs and crawled into bed and watched a Law & Order: SVU marathon. I snuggled with the cat. I cried a little. I waited for Amanda to come home. I had promised her we were having a fruit and cheese dinner, with those Sugar-Roasted Peaches as the centerpiece, brie and pepper jelly and homemade sunflower-walnut bread and cold sweet cherries.
I recently read a lovely memoir called Keeping the Feast, which I’ll blog about in more detail later this week. The woman who wrote it explains that during the most difficult time of her life, as her husband battled daily with crippling depression, as she mourned and tried to heal, as she tried to reconcile the terribly shitty hand life dealt to her, she broke her days into meals. All she had to do was get through breakfast, feed herself and her husband. Then lunch. Then dinner. Then sleep. Repeat.
Sometimes, I think that’s what I do. When Amanda came home, I told myself, I would get up, straighten the blankets, go to the kitchen, and roast peaches. I would spread brie on bread. I would chew sweet cherries, spitting out seeds as I went. I just had to make it to the roasting of peaches.
I did. I made it to the roasting of peaches. Amanda read the recipe aloud to me as I performed steps in rapid succession – stove-top roasting, tucking herbs and bacon around the peach halves, transferring the whole thing to the oven, waiting to flip the peaches, waiting to eat. We stood over the stove and admired the peaches, working together to get the dish made.
One of the things I love about food – really good food, whatever that means for each person – food can heal. Food can distract the mind by taking charge of the body. It can wrap itself around our tongues and make our mouths water. Chewing can take priority. The aches of heart and head can be supplanted by our own physicality, our need to fill our bellies, to chew and taste and swallow and eat more. Food can jolt us with life and energy and renewal.
I took one bite of those Sugar-Roasted Peaches last night, and that food took over. The flavor was so surprising – salty, tangy, both flavors bolder than I expected. The peaches themselves are sweet on the outside, juicy on the inside, warm and tart deep into the flesh. Bites are infused at turns with rosemary or bacon or both. The recipe says to remove the bacon to be eaten as a cook’s treat. Amanda and I ate the small pieces along with our fruit and cheese dinner, and I had the revelation that rosemary-infused bacon might be one of the best things ever. (From now on, I have half a mind to pan-fry my bacon until half-done, then sprinkle rosemary sprigs in the pan and transfer to the oven for roasting.)
My life is usually very wrapped up in food. I write about it, and I spend a great deal of time reading about it, thinking about it, forming opinions, trying new combinations. I photograph it, Instagram the crap out of it, and share it on Facebook or Twitter. So it’s interesting that I sometimes take food for granted. I forget its powers, the potential for food to perform a curative, renewing role. But Sugar-Roasted Peaches reminded me. I felt my soul quiet down. My body felt lighter, more awake than it had in hours. I could focus on a few essentials: my beautiful girlfriend sitting across from me, a slice of homemade bread in my hand, the clouds outside lifting, temporarily, casting weak streams of light over the small pots of basil and cilantro seeds I had placed on the windowsill.
Recipe from Fine Cooking, re-worded and tweaked by me
2 slices thick cut bacon (I used 3 slices of regular bacon)
4 ripe semi-firm medium peaches, halved and pitted (I used 3)
2 tsp raw sugar, such as demerara or turbinado (I used a couple generous pinches)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large sprigs of fresh summer or winter savory, thyme, or rosemary
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450.
Cook the bacon in a cast-iron skillet, flipping occasionally, until crisp, about 5-8 minutes. (Careful not to burn it.) Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. No snacking on it – you’ll still need it! Pour the bacon fat from the skillet into a heat-proof bowl, leaving a fat slick in the skillet. You’ll need 4 tsp of fat; if you don’t have quite that much, supplement with olive oil. Raise the heat under the skillet to medium high.
Sprinkle the cut sides of the peaches evenly with the sugar and a tiny pinch each of salt and pepper. Arrange the peaches in the skillet cut side down and tuck the herbs around them. Tear the bacon slices in quarters and tuck the pieces around the peaches. Drizzle 2 tsp. of the reserved bacon fat evenly over the peaches and let them cook undisturbed until the cut sides begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle the uncut sides of the peaches with a tiny pinch of salt, then transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until the peaches are just tender, about 10 minutes.
Flip the peaches, drizzle with 2 tsp. more of the reserved bacon fat, and continue to roast until they’re tender but not falling apart, about 5 minutes more. Enjoy the bacon as a cook’s treat, or save it for another use; discard the herbs. Let the peaches cool slightly before serving.
Fine Cooking’s website provides really excellent ways to eat these peaches – from on arranging them on top of a salad to enjoying them with yogurt. Follow the link to get those recipes, or feel free to experiment – pull out some ice cream, fry up a pork chop, or just mash it down on a piece of rustic toast. Enjoy!