Dish of the Week:
Crispy Sonoma Duck Breast w/ Frog Hollow Peaches, Pancetta Wrapped Asparagus and Golden Polenta Cakes…
The unseasonable weather we’ve been having ~ rainstorms followed by 100+ degree heat in just the last week alone ~ has delayed the normal flow of seasonal produce to our kitchen. No big deal when you consider that tornadoes, floods and drought seem to be occurring on a daily basis with "unexplained"frequency throughout the world. Still, it was odd to see peaches make their first appearance in the kitchen the first of July when I traditionally celebrate my birthday ~ which is in May ~ waking up to the first white peach of the season.
The best way to tell if a peach is ripe is by smell ~ ripeness increases chemicals called lactones which give peaches their ethereal heavenly fragrance. If you don’t trust your nose, start by looking for a yellow ground color ~ keeping in mind that some varieties will retain a slight green color to the skin even when they are ready to pick. That beautiful red blush? Only happens on the part of the peach that faces the sun. There are over 70 volatile compounds that contribute to a peach’s flavor,but rain and cooler temperatures affect peaches more than most crops. While you can soften firm peaches by putting them in a paper bag to rest, don’t expect them to become sweeter. A peach stops ripening the moment you pick it from the tree. There's a moral in there somewhere.
Happily, Chef made the most of these early beauties from Frog Hollow, pitting and slicing the flesh before compressing them in elderflower syrup and opal basil from the garden. Knowing how to work with fruit that is either a little under or over-ripe is really handy in extending the season, but it does take knowing what constitutes ripe for that particular fruit. I’m good with drupes like peaches plums and apricots, but horrible with melons, where a great smell can sometimes actually only mean the fruit is over-ripe and mushy. Go figure.
The duck was sourced from our friend Jim Reichardt at Liberty Duck (aka Sonoma County Poultry), who has been supplying Barndiva since the day we opened ~ we add purveyors all the time but it’s always great to see an old friend’s name on the menu. To cook the duck to perfection we used Chef’s fail-proof method ~ which I’ve written about before but merits repeating because while its so easy to cook duck right, its even easier to mess it up. If you are not going to confit, the way to go is to oven roast the breast before finishing, skin side down in the pan w/ herbs, OO and a knob of butter. Be warned: this method won’t work if you don’t pare down the duck fat to its thinnest membrane first... even a bit too much fat is way too much fat. What you are after is crispy skin that immediately dissolves into moist duck meat.
The golden polenta cakes also celebrated a crispiness that stopped at the edge ~ crispy was the theme song of this dish ~ in this case giving way to a meltingly soft rich center thanks to the mascarpone and garlic confit that had been folded into the corn meal before it set.
The prosciutto wrapped asparagus made me laugh when I first saw them ~ they reminded me of those 80’s hors d' oeuvres that lifestyle magazines told you were the ne plus ultra to throwing a chic dinner party ~ but Ryan’s interpretation, in Emeril’s classic words, “took them up a notch.” Dainty in size but big in flavor, they were a perfect accompaniment to the duck and peaches, discrete but winning, mingling in an especially moorish way with a balsamic reduction that trailed across the plate. If the duck hadn’t been there in all its glory, I would have wanted a whole lot more of these babies, a plate full in fact. But in the end I came away from this dish dreaming of all the peaches still out there ripening on trees, just now coming on to summer…just like the rest of us.
In the Garden
Know how the best thing about you is often also the worst? That surely holds for our gardens. Usually glorious from May-November the late rains of June turned them into a mosh pit this year, and I don’t mean the kind you jump in to get up front and personal. We live in the country and want our restaurant to celebrate the anti-paved life we've chosen, but decomposed granite needs lots of TLC which includes raking it every morning, impossible to do when it looks like the last day of Woodstock out there. Our apologies to anyone who showed up over the past month (especially after waiting all through winter for a long leisurely Sunday Brunch) and found them off limits. Starting this Wednesday evening we promise to open them whenever we can, weather permitting.
Also starting this Wednesday Seth Minor will return with the newest incarnation of the Tractor Bar Trio who will play two sets of mellow gypsy jazz for your dining pleasure, starting at 6. If you haven’t experienced the reason we started Wednesday at the Barn ~ incomparable food, wine, and music enjoyed beneath the trees ~ come on down.
(speaking of peaches…check out the dessert on the Wednesday at the Barn menu.)
All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)