Pleasures of the flesh
When I started cooking as an apprentice in restaurants, it was my job to man the “palate cleanser” station. The palate cleanser of the day in all top-end restaurants was a Champagne sorbet, customarily served between entree and main course. Even then it struck me as weird, and I don’t know where it came from other than the silliness of the 1980s. I’m happy things have now changed. The palate cleanser has since become the pre-dessert. The one I rely on is a yoghurt cream with cucumber granita – something not too heavy or sweet and also a little refreshing between courses.
Stone fruits are the best of summer. I’ve specified white peaches – I love the perfume and I think they’re a bit more delicate. They are my favourite stone fruit and the basis of one of the best cocktails, the Bellini. Most Bellinis are made from jarred premix and prosecco, but there is nothing better than taking a white, perfectly ripe peach, peeling it with your fingers and crushing it with the back of a fork. That’s where the flavours in this recipe came from, really: the Champagne and the peaches. The only reason I’ve added raspberries is to make the Champagne pink. But it tastes good, too, which is a bonus.
The thing chefs like about stone fruits is that once a real summer kicks in there will be a solid supply of consistent and good-quality stone fruit for just over two months. Once the season starts, it’s usually reliable, where other fruit can fluctuate through a season. The other thing about stone fruit is they are mostly grown locally. They don’t have to travel like tropical fruit.
The exception is apricots. It is rarer and rarer to find a good-quality apricot: they can be great one season, and not great the next. This is because they are a more delicate fruit, susceptible to fluctuations in temperature and water. But when they are good, they’re great.
One of the best thing to do with apricots – other than eating them fresh or cooking them in a tart – is to make jam. Using ripe, rather than overripe apricots, is the key. And leaving a few stones in for flavour is important. Beyond that, the plainer the better.
In the restaurant, I’m making a custard at the moment using apricot kernels to infuse flavour. The final custard ends up with a very strong almond flavour. One of the reasons we use it is to reference apricot kernels in Chinese desserts. But you do have to be cautious: too many and the flavour becomes sickly. For a litre of custard, we only use 35 grams of kernels.
White peach and nectarine salad with Champagne granita
– 750ml (1 bottle) Champagne or sparkling wine
– 350ml sugar syrup (1 cup water and 1 cup sugar brought to the boil then cooled)
– 150g frozen raspberries
– 2 white peaches
– 2 white nectarines
– 2 mint leaves, finely shredded
– 1 tbsp raw sugar
– 2 tsp brandy
– ½ cup cream
– 1 tsp icing sugar
First make the granita.
Combine the wine and raspberries in a saucepan and boil for three minutes. Whisk the mixture to break up the raspberries and pour it through a fine strainer into the sugar syrup. Press down on the raspberry pulp to extract the juice.
Pour the mixture into a shallow dish and place in the freezer. Freeze until icy around the edges.
Stir the icy portions into the middle of the dish. Freeze until the mixture is frozen, stirring the edges into the centre every so often.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and have a container of ice water at the ready.
One by one, place the peaches and nectarines into the boiling water for a few seconds to loosen the skin, then put them straight into the ice water to stop the cooking. (If your peaches and nectarines are perfectly ripe, the skin should peel off easily without having to blanch them in hot water.)
Slip the skins off the fruit. If necessary, use a small knife to help peel away any stubborn bits of skin.
Cut the fruit in half to remove the stone, then slice into wedges.
In a bowl, toss the fruit with the sugar, mint and brandy and leave for a few minutes to macerate.
Whip the cream and icing sugar to soft peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To serve, divide the fruit between four dishes and top each with a spoonful of whipped cream.
Use a fork to rake the granita into icy flakes and place a small heap over the cream in each bowl.
2014 Bress The Kindest Cut riesling/viognier, Harcourt, Victoria ($27) – Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Pleasures of the flesh". Subscribe here.