tomorrow's lunch, today.

I listened to a story teller a few nights back. Not a man telling a story, but a man whose entire being and was occupied with the business of weaving his tale. 

His cadence was long and loping but deliberate, and it suited his southern drawl. The words meandered along the way to their destination, unhurried. If I squinted my eyes, it wasn't hard to imagine those words puffing out from his lips and into the air like smoke upon an exhale from a cigar.

The effect was entirely soothing, but so riveting was its interest that you could not help but hang onto every word. A hypnotist's lullaby. 

He was really good.

When he stopped, I wanted to linger there in his phrases. To climb inside and stay a while.  

Pulling me out of the blissful lethargy of his words was hunger. In this story, at the heart of it all, he used a sandwich as the embodiment of all he felt familiar. 

By the end of that story, he made a sandwich sound really, very good. 

He had been talking about New Orleans, and talking about po' boys. Talking about a sandwich that is messy, sloppy and soaked. He liked his with gravy, with the bread making valiant efforts to sop up as much as it could but failing, so that juice drips from that bump right where the heel of your palm ends and your wrist begins. A sandwich that requires your elbows on the table to provide proper purchase.

Without the necessary components of his ideal on hand, I turned to another, equally sodden sandwich to appease my yearning - pan bagnat. 

A speciality of Nice, pan bagnat is a pressed sandwich stuffed to its crust with the goodies of a Niçoise salad. From bottom up, I'll walk you through it.

It starts with good bread. You need a boule with a crust substantial enough to stand up to the richness and literal weight of the filling. In this version, it's spread with tapenade then covered in whole basil leaves. Tiles of hard boiled egg are arranged next, then chunks of oil-packed tuna dressed in an assertive vinaigrette. Sliced red onion and cucumber are last in the instructions, but I added mixed greens for substantial crunch (and again, all of these were bathed in the vinaigrette as well).

The whole thing is wrapped tight and pressed, with the layers evening out and settling in. I should say your sandwich will be prettier than mine; I was so eager  to share a slice with you that I hardly waited to snap the photo. Be patient. It needs that rest.

After a few hours the bread swells with the moisture and becomes softly chewy. Bite in, and there are layers of salt and acidity, of flavours and texture. The fatty blandness of the egg yolk melts into the seasoned tuna and rounds out the vinegar. The basil emerges from the murky depth of the tapenade, two big flavours in balance. The salad on top of it all is refreshing and palate clearing and gets the mouth ready for the next greedy bite.

And oh, a few bites in, you'll be able to move from two elbows to one firmly planted on the table. But, that said, keep this isn't a sandwich to be put down once you've begun eating. If you try, things will get complicated. Don't worry, now with the free hand you can grab a glass of cold, cold wine. 

You won't need much else. Maybe a napkin. And a good story, if you're lucky.

PAN BAGNAT

From Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast(Random House Canada, 2010). I have just started cooking with this book, but for those who might be familiar with it's predecessor,Everyday Food: Great Food Fast, this title follows much the same style and feel. 

Recipe, via Martha Stewart. 

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When there are two birthdays in your family of four within seven days, it makes for a festive week. And, well, a lot of buttercream too.

My birthday was yesterday, at the tail end of that celebratory span. And by the time my moment to blow out the candles rolled around, the last thing I wanted was cake.

So we made this. By we I mean our Benjamin and I did, and by this I mean a Strawberry Icebox Cake. But it's not a cake, really, simply graham crackers stacked with sweet, whipped heavy cream and drizzled with a rosy strawberry sauce. After a rest in the chill chest from which its name derives, the crackers swell and the cream thickens and the strawberry sauce pretty much becomes best friends with everybody.

That sauce is the only cooking requirement; it's a stirring job for the most part as the lion's share of the berries simmer and bubble into a jammy fruit goo (I use the term lovingly), and then a buzz around the blender. What remains now is pretty much laughter and licking the spoons, because you're almost completely home free.

No baking required, no butter to cream, only 10 minutes or so of building block style assembly.

The good manners that my Grandmother taught me tell me I should be abashed at the categorical ordinariness of this cake. It's crackers and cream and fruit. Where's the flamboyance? Where's the show? Birthdays are supposed to be about razzmatazz.

But don't be fooled, it's a quiet cacophony, but this cake will knock you flat. That sauce of ours practically vibrates with each and every childlike notion of what berries should be. It's bold and tangy and reminds you that strawberries aren't just about being sweet; they're one of the first fruits of the season and in that redness they carry the jubilant acidity that comes from crisp mornings and sunshine-bathed afternoons.

Then there's the cream that brings me back to the summer when I was six years old and I thought strawberry ice cream was just about the best thing going. Once the crackers get involved, it all becomes a cloud of strawberry shortcake.

At one point yesterday, I found it hard to chew because I was smiling so big; partly because who made it with me and who was sharing it with me, and partly because was exactly what I wanted. And if smiles like that isn't what the best birthdays are about, then I don't know what is.

Happy days to you.

STRAWBERRY ICEBOX CAKE

This is berry-fied version of theMocha Icebox Cake we made last year, with little changes to the basic cake and method. I've republished the instructions for ease, but here is the original in case anyone is interested in the chocolate and coffee version. The instructions are for a square cake, which is easier and neater than our attempt at a round. But, if you decide to aim for circular, these amounts will be about right.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE SAUCE (makes approximately 1 cup)

  • 1 pound strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup caster sugar, or thereabouts
  • 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • A pinch of salt

INGREDIENTS FOR THE CAKE

  • 3 1/2 cups heavy (whipping cream), divided
  • 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, divided, or thereabouts
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 45 honey graham crackers, the single kind
  • One recipe Strawberry sauce, divided

METHOD

To make the sauce, take three-quarters of the berries and put them in a medium saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the salt and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.

Carefully remove the strawberries to a blender (or use an immersion blender), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes truly thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 10 minutes. At this point you want it on the verge of jammy-ness, close to the texture of hot fudge sauce.

Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan and cook for another minute or so.

Again with care, remove the strawberries to that blender of yours and whirr them around again. Sieve again, this time to a clean container, and set the sauce aside to cool. It should be about the consistency of chocolate syrup, rather than fudge, and will coat the back of a spoon thickly, but not heavily. Once it has cooled to a non-molten level, taste for balance and stir in the rest of the sugar and lemon if need be.

To assemble the cake. Line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of clingfilm, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip 2 cups of well-chilled heavy cream. Once the cream begins to thicken, sift in 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar and salt. With the mixer on medium-high, whip until the cream begins to hold soft peaks. Add the vanilla, and beat until the cream just holds a stiff peak.

Spread a small amount of the cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Lay 9 crackers, in a 3-by-3 grid, on top of the cream. Spoon 1/2 cup of the cream on top of the crackers. Then, using an offset spatula, gently spread the cream to cover the crackers entirely. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the strawberry sauce over the cream, spreading to form an even layer if desired. (You will use a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce for the entire cake.)

Top with another layer of graham crackers, continuing the layering until you have 5 layers of crackers and 4 of the cream and strawberry. Make sure to reserve a small amount of cream to cover the last layer of crackers (no sauce on this one).

Cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, then draw the overhanging clingfilm from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.

About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the clingfilm. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining clingfilm from the top and sides. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula if needed. Place the cake in the freezer, uncovered, to chill for 30 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip the remaining 1 cup of well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the reserved 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar. With the machine set to medium-high, whip the cream until holds a firm peak, but being careful not to over beat.

Take the cake out of the refrigerator and gently spread a thin layer of the whipped cream to cover. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then serve with the remaining strawberry sauce passed alongside.

Makes one 8-inch square cake.

Notes:

  • The thing about fruit sauces is that so much will depend on the fruit itself. You might need more or less sugar than I've suggested. This recipe will make around 1 cup, but it might be more or less depending on the juiciness of the fruit and how thick your final sauce ends up. Any leftover sauce can be used over ice cream or stirred into yogurt, or as the base of a strawberried champagne cocktail (which gets my vote).
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I know that I am a bit early for our usual Thursday chat, but I made this tart last night and liked it so much that I couldn't wait five whole days to tell you about it.

As with so many happy accidents, I came about this success without paying much attention. It is the improvised partnership of recipes from others I admire, brought together by the downright-unglamorous need to clean out the fridge on Friday night before Saturday's trip to the market.

Heidi's Lasagna Tart was an instant favourite in our kitchen, first made within days of her kindly sharing the recipe. The barely-cooked sauce and the raw zucchini keep the flavour remarkably fresh and light even after baking, while the ricotta layer brings creamy relief to all that acidity. I have used the olive oil crust she provided, as well as the Parmesan variation she suggests. Both to great acclaim.

I had never made Rachel's Tomato and Zucchini Tart before, but is a recipe that piqued my interest. Instead of sauce hers has tomato slices, roasted briefly along with the summer squash to concentrate and sweeten their flavours. And her cobblestoned topping of fresh mozzarella is far from a bad thing.

Since yesterday brought rain and temperatures that bespoke the quick arrival of fall, I chose to take elements from each. I wanted a dish that brought some comfort, but didn't ignore that fact that it is still August. What follows is what I think I did, written without formality and with only my best estimates of quantities and timing.

I had not intended this tart as anything greater than our evening's meal. And so, to be safe, let me emphasize the essential parts of my hastily-scribbled instructions; sticky caramelized onions line a butter-laden crust, profoundly rich and yet well-matched by a smear of sharp, young cheese. Atop that are tiles of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, softening into each other, lush with their juices.

The final effect is one of substance without brawn, something so good that I had to share.

Happy weekend.

LATE SUMMER VEGETABLE TART

My adaptation of recipes from Rachel and Heidi, with thanks. The amounts and particulars below for the filling are a non-specific guideline. I was working with what we had on hand, but feel free to make omissions and substitutions to best suit your tastes (and contents of your fridge).

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 large onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 shallots, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves picked from their stems, plus more for garnish
  • 2 beefsteak tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices, I used a mix of varieties and sizes
  • 4 ounces herbed unripened goat's cheese
  • Parmesan cheese (an ounce or so)
  • Fresh mozzarella (around 1/2 a large ball)
  • Good quality olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 9-inch pastry shell of your choice, partially baked (see note)

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C).

Take the eggplant and zucchini slices and toss in a large bowl with a generous sprinkling of salt. Transfer the slices to a colander and leave to drain.

In a medium skillet over medium-low heat, cook the onions and shallots in bit of olive oil, stirring occasionally. After about 20 minutes, or when the onions and shallots are lightly-caramelized and starting to catch in places, add the garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes more, so that the garlic has chance to mellow and soften. Pour in the vinegar to deglaze the pan, scraping and the bottom of the skillet with your spoon to pick up any brown bits. Cook for a minute or so, until most of the vinegar has evaporated. Remove the vegetables from the heat and stir in the thyme. Set aside.

Pat dry the eggplant and zucchini on a (non-terrycloth) kitchen towel. Coat the eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in olive oil lay them out in a single layer on baking sheets. Season all with pepper, the tomatoes with salt too. Roast vegetables in the preheated oven, working in batches, until the vegetables are just beginning to brown in spots, around 20 minutes. Although the tomatoes were too delicate for such a procedure, I flipped the eggplant and zucchini over halfway through roasting. You want them tender, but not falling apart.

When the vegetables are done, remove from the oven and turn down the temperature to 350°F (175°C).

Beat the goat's cheese in a small bowl, with a drizzle of olive oil if needed, until creamy. With an offset spatula, spread the cheese over the parbaked pastry crust. Layer in the caramelized onions, then the eggplant, next the zucchini, and finally the tomatoes. Tear the fresh mozzarella into rough chunks over all. Using a vegetable peeler, shave a few large, thin shards of Parmesan on top.

Bake in the preheated over for 30 minutes, until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving, with a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves to finish.

Makes 1 9-inch tart.

Notes:

• Yesterday I used an all-butter pâte brisée from Martha Stewart, making the full recipe and sending a second tart off to loved ones. I did make one change, using 1 tablespoon of vinegar (in this case white balsamic, usually apple cider vinegar) in place of an equal amount of ice water. I also make this crust with 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour instead of using all white.

• This was especially good the next day, gently warmed and served with a soft-yolked fried egg for brunch.

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I have been thinking about this Buttermilk Pudding Cake for quite some time. When I saw it's photo, with those carmine-coloured berries all snuggled up against a cushion of tender, melting cake, the image stuck with me. It looked like all things dreamy, served up on a spoon.

Nevertheless, with such a short ingredient list, the skeptic in me raised a singular eyebrow - something the actual me cannot do without looking oddly quizzical or slightly pained. Could such a meagre collection of ingredients really amount to a dessert that lived up to its looks?

Oh my yes. If I was not blissfully married already, I would be writing Mrs. Tara Buttermilk Pudding Cake over and over in notepads, with hearts all around. I might whittle a million pencils down to the tiniest of nubs, and my hands could cramp, but I wouldn't care. Not at all. I am head-over-heels lost over this cake.

After getting all your bits and bobs in order, this is a cake that takes all of five minutes to make (with a mixer, a little longer by hand), but tastes exponentially better than the effort it requires. After stirring and whipping the disparate components, they are folded together into a marshmallow-tender batter. It sighs and slips its way into a pan, baking gently until pouffed on top and turned luscious below.

The only gentle suggestion I might offer would be to switch the raspberries for fresh peaches, as around here, raspberries are terribly last month. We live in peach-growing country, and at present the trees are heavy with their weight. For this, you want the ample-bosomed variety, full and soft, with a velvet skin that begs you to nuzzle in close and get a bit familiar. That yielding flesh mimics the softness of the cake's custardy belly, in delicious repetition.

And now that you have been formally introduced I do believe you should give this cake a thought as well.

If you require more reason than the case I have laid before you, you could be like me, and take my unabashedly shameless excuse, disguised under a flimsy veil of altruism. First, agree to make a recipe for a loved one that requires buttermilk, then accidentally-on-purpose purchase more buttermilk than said recipe requires. Wait a few days. Finally, choose a quiet afternoon to nobly bake the aforementioned Buttermilk Pudding Cake, as you wouldn't want the excess to go to waste.

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Everybody wins.

On a personal note, I want to dedicate this post to the talented and breathtakingly-honestJess. She mentioned elsewhere that this dish took her fancy, and as she's been through more in her 28th year than many go through in decades, the least I could do is offer her something that might make her smile, as if to say - "We're so glad to see you on the other side."

IMG_07942A

BUTTERMILK PUDDING CAKE WITH MAPLE SUGAR PEACHES

From Gourmet.com, with minor changes. As you can see from the telltale marks on the dishes, this cake soufflés beautifully in the oven, but collapses quickly upon its removal from the heat. For the prettiest presentation, I would take the cake straight from oven to table in its fully plumped glory, then cruelly make your guests wait as it cools.

INGREDEINTS

  • 4 medium peaches, sliced into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wedges (or thereabouts)
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple sugar or equal amounts of maple syrup
  • Softened butter for greasing the pan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups well-shaken buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided

METHOD

In a medium bowl, gently stir together the peaches and enough maple sugar or syrup to sweeten to taste. Allow to macerate at room temperature while preparing the cake.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter the inside of a 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. In another mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, butter, egg yolks, and 1/3 cup granulated sugar until well combined and the sugar is pretty much dissolved. Add the liquids to the flour mixture, stirring until just combined. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, either by hand or with a mixer, beat the reserved egg whites on medium speed until frothy and opaque. Increase the speed to medium high, or if by hand beat faster, and start adding the remaining sugar a tablespoons at a time, beating well to incorporate each addition. Continue whipping the egg whites until they just hold a stiff peak. Do not over beat.

Working quickly but gently, stir about one-third of the egg whites into the prepared batter. Once almost combined, add another third of whites, this time folding the batter over the whites to incorporate thoroughly. Repeat with the last of the whites.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, place this dish in a larger dish or roasting pan, and pour hot water from a recently-boiled kettle in the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the smaller. Bake the cake in this water bath in the preheated oven for 4- to 50 minutes, until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving with the peaches alongside.

Serves 6, but I would really think 4, greedily, is the way to go. Sharing is difficult with this one.

Notes:

• I used Brien's superfine maple sugar, which has lighter taste than others I have tried, with an understated sweetness rather than that throat-warming hit associated with maple syrup. I further preferred maple sugar over syrup as it seemed to draw more juices out of the peaches, and thickened those juices only slightly.

A few days ago, early last Saturday morning to be precise, Sean and I had a complete breakdown in communication.

We were at the Farmer's Market, me with one perched on my hip and another clasping my hand, and Sean across the way. It was a busy morning, so while our boys snacked on their standard sample from the nearby bakery, Sean waded into the current of people to gather our purchases.

Usually, our over-and-through-the-crowd brand of semaphore works a treat. This time, not so much. With all the hustle and bustle, our signals got crossed and the quantities of our request was lost in translation. Long story short, we ended up with a surfeit of corn. Double the intended amount, to be exact.

Not a terrible mistake, by any means, as the corn in question was fresh, local stuff, with neat rows of bicoloured kernels nestled snugly under tender green husks. Not terrible in the least.

A first impulse would be to tear back that blanket of green and roast the Dickens out of those ears atop a charcoal grill. Blistered black and concentrated sweet, I would gleefully dig in to the barbecued beauties. Or steamed tender-crisp, with a smear of sweet butter and scattering of crunchy flakes of salt - there were days of possibilities for our plenty.

The trouble was, more than a few of those possibilities included the application of heat. And did I mention to you that Summer huffed and puffed our way last week? With sweaty palms and hot breath, the season (finally) truly settled in on the 15th of August. And, no doubt about it, Summer is making up for lost time.

As I write this, it is 40°C with the humidex (104°F). While I am not all that bothered by the temperatures, by far preferring hot over cold, my boys are wilting more than a little bit. The heat has kept their mops eternally mussed, their ruddy cheeks shine with a thin sheen of perspiration and their kisses have turned salty.

You can understand then, that I am not in the least inclined to crank up the oven and overheat our happy home or add any fire to our already-sultry backyard.

As luck would have it, a little while prior to our misunderstanding at the market*, I had enjoyed this salad from Anna Olson. Served at her shop, it was subtle and sweet, but my version alters hers ever so slightly; here, there is oomph to be had.

Stripped from the cob, plump gold and ivory nuggets glisten with a slick of olive oil in a pan for nothing but the shortest of sojourns, then it's a tumble with an edible confetti of shallots, chili, green onion and herbs. The blueberries are next, an addition that brings musky depth and even more mouth-quenching moisture. Squeeze on some lime, crumble over brackish nuggets of fresh cheese, and off it all goes to chill.

In the intervening minutes between mix and serve is when everything happens. The corn turns sweeter, it's flavour amplified by the citrus and complimented by berries that shimmer onyx-bright. Fresh onion contrasts mellowed, cooked tones, the chilies release gentle heat into it all.

May all misunderstandings result in such dividends.

* It might just be the temperature finally getting to me, but doesn't The Misunderstanding at the Market sound like the title to an Agatha Christie mystery? Or at least a Harlequin romance novel?

BLUEBERRY CORN SALAD

Adapted from a recipe by Anna Olson. Queso fresco is a fresh Mexican cheese that has a mild, creamy taste.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling (optional)
  • 3 cups fresh corn kernels (about 4 ears)
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion
  • 2 red chilies, finely minced, seeded if desired
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta or queso fresco
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

METHOD

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add the olive oil, then the corn. Sauté for about 2 minutes, until the corn begins to brighten in colour. Add the shallot and cook for 1 minute more, stirring often. Remove pan from the heat, stir in the green onion and red chilies. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Allow the vegetables to cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, combine the corn mixture with the blueberries and cilantro tossing gently to combine. Pour over the lime juice, along with an extra glug of olive oil if desired. Stir again, then gently fold in the feta or queso fresco. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, checking for seasoning before serving.

Serves 4.

I was sitting in the front room yesterday, my head bent over a book and my back to the open window. I was preoccupied with the words on the page, and did not fully note the gaining volume of the wind through the trees. What pulled me out of my concentration was a feeling against my neck. It was raining. With that rain had come a cool that entered the house like a spirit, slipping past the windowsill and settling in.

In our part of Ontario, and from what I hear of the Northeastern United States, it has been one wet summer. In fact, we've had rain of every character.

We were prey to fierce thunderstorms. They felt dramatic and enticingly-wild at first, but gathered with such quick extremity that they more than approached threatening. Lightning lit up the sky with violent fireworks. Thunder rattled nerves and set the mind on edge. The house creaked and groaned with the impact of a thousand million blows.

There was the rain that seemed without beginning or end. It was gloomy weather, and the world seemed perpetually sodden. The rain dripped dispiritedly. Damp, dismal, dreary, and just about any other depressing (another one!) d-beginning adjective you could think of.

There came the rain that wasn't rain at all, but something in between humidity and a low-flying cloud. Wetter than fog, the air was full with suspended moisture that slicked all surfaces, both inside and out.

The moments of sunshine we've seen have been fleeting. Most days there has been rain, or the threat of impending rain, with foreboding clouds looming on the horizon, all around.

What with all of our watery forecasts, the smile that tugged at my lips that stormy afternoon might seem unexpected. But despite all the woebegone times of pressing our foreheads to the windowpanes and watching rain fall down, I still fall hard for the moments of enchantment those same rains can bring.

Take yesterday, with its unnatural midday darkness. All was loudly quiet as I moved from room to room, the constant patter of plump drops muffling most other noises. Now and again I could hear children, the little girls from down the street I think, dancing in puddles. Splashes then squeals. Their giggles sharp and joyful, cutting through the din. The street shone wet, gleaming black as the streetlights flickered on.

It was magic. And it was the perfect time for some baking.

Although fruit desserts reign supreme come summertime, I usually think of crisps as the ideal for cooler months. With their slowly-stewed bottoms and buttery crusts, they feel best suited to autumn evenings curled up by the fire. But with the rain we've had, the decidedly unfussy nature of a crisp fit in beautifully with my afternoon plans of busying myself indoors. And as that rain brought cool as its travelling companion, I didn't mind the idea of turning on the oven.

This peach crisp is gloriously uncluttered with nothing else but the essentials. Nothing taxing to muddle about with, only a layer of sweet cream cushioning plump, honeyed crescents of peach, buried beneath an oaten rubble. When baked, the fruit is exceedingly voluptuous, its flesh supple and its juices seeping out.

Each bite of golden peach was soaked heavy with the memory of sunshine. The rain doesn't seem so bad after all.

SOUR CREAM AND PEACH CRISP

My own thrown-together interpretation of a variety of sources, so I'll send credit to Deb for reminding me of the combination.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup old-fashioned, large flake oats (not instant)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
  • 1-2 teaspoons crystalized ginger, finely minced (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick, 8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 8 ounces sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 pounds peaches, cut into quarters
  • Coarse or sanding sugar for sprinkling (optional)

METHOD

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).

In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine flours, oats, brown sugar, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, ginger and salt. Using a pastry cutter, or the mixer on its lowest speed, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse, uneven meal. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir the remaining 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar with the sour cream and vanilla until dissolved.

Take a few scant handfuls of the oat mixture and sprinkle it in the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate or shallow dish. Spoon over the sour cream, spreading to cover completely. Arrange the peach slices, cut side up, on top of the cream. Sprinkle the remaining oat mixture over the fruit, leaving a bit of fruit peaking out of the edges. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the cream is set, the peaches are tender and the topping is golden brown. Allow to cool on a rack for a few minutes, serving warm or cold.

Makes one 9-inch crisp.

Notes:

• I used a five-grain rolled cereal instead of oats alone.

• I leave the skin on the peaches, as it helps them retain their shape and I like the prettiness of their scarlet-stained tips. If you prefer to blanch the skins and remove them, feel free to do so.

• This crisp is best when the peaches truly juicy; it is their moisture that helps set the cream into a layer akin to a custard, rather than becoming stodgy and dry. If you have any concerns, you can follow Sean's suggestion of adding a handful or two of berries (blackberries or raspberries would be particularly good).

I know that I am more than late for our usual Thursday chat, but please forgive my tardiness. Due to an oversight on my part, our guest of honour was not ready for their debut. But finally, the wait is over.

The pickles have arrived. And what pickles they are. But before I tell you about their end, let me tell you of how they came to be.

At the market last weekend, I overheard a farmer describing the progress of his crop. Speaking in glowing tones that were more than tinged with pride, he detailed the specific traits of each of his vegetables; how they grew, their likes and dislikes, their particular qualities. He had a quiet intensity about the way he spoke, an enthusiasm that shone through his words. It was evident that the subject matter was of the utmost importance - more than a livelihood, but a passion as well.

There's just one of the many reasons why he's our Regular Vegetable Man.

On that same weekend his summer squash was especially fine, slender and small, with delicate, taut skin that was perfectly blemish-free. I do not know what it was that sparked my idea of pickling these little darlings, but a pickle was my particular plan. It was a surprising choice, as my usual tendency is to grill, griddle, or roast. But a pickle seemed the order of the day, the promise of crisp, cold slices of squash, puckery and astringent had me salivating. As a good pickle should.

Five days after salting, boiling and sealing the jars tight, I opened the fridge with fork in hand and anticipation in my heart.

That's the thing about pickles, they require faith. Commitment. They take their own sweet time. You do what you can to set things in motion, but that is where your influence ends.

What you put in the jar is as acrid and overblown, eye-twitchingly sour. But wait, just you wait, this is only the beginning. From there, the pickle really takes care of itself. The wait is transformative, and what happens inside that glass coccoon is entirely out of your hands. But your patience will be duly rewarded.

And rewarded I was. After those days, the vinegars had mellowed and muted, now balanced with a sweetness that is first to the tongue. The heat follows, with the indisputable zing of acid to finish.

I wonder if our Vegetable Man might like a jar.

BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLED SUMMER SQUASH

Inspired by a recipe from Simply Recipes. As these are meant as a refrigerator (chilled) pickle, they are not processed after being canned. Please see the link above for valuable tips on sterilizing and, if you so choose, how to process pickles so that they are shelf-stable.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 pounds mixed summer squash, cut into 1/8-inch slices (I used yellow summer squash and zucchini)
  • 1 medium white onion (about 8 ounces), halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 heaping tablespoons kosher or pickling salt
  • 2 cups ice cubes
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons whole mustard seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon celery seed
  • 3/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/8 teaspoon or a good pinch of ground cloves

METHOD

Toss squash and onion with salt in a large colander set over a bowl. Add ice, toss again. Refrigerate, tossing occasionally for 3 hours. This process will increase the crunch of the pickles by drawing out excess water. Once the 3 hours have passed, drain the squash, picking out any ice cubes that might remain. Rinse well and drain again.

Bring vinegars, sugar, mustard and celery seeds, peppercorns, turmeric, red pepper flakes and ground clove to a boil in a saucepan. Add the drained squash and onion. Ladle into 4 hot sterilized pint jars, leaving about 1/2 inch below each jar's neck. Carefully wipe rims of jars with a clean, damp cloth. Cover tightly with new, sterilized lids and screw tops. Cool to room temperature, then store in the fridge for 3-5 days before opening.

Makes 4 1-pint jars, to be eaten within weeks of making.