Fruit packs a punch

Fruit packs a punch

Although many domestic fruits are now at peak summer flavor, that arguably perfect natural sweetness doesn’t appear enough for some chefs. Vine- and sun-ripened flavors are fine, they say, but flavors concentrated through stovetop reduction or sous vide are even better. Sure, great chefs often let nature’s bounty speak for itself, but some are forcing it to say more.

Steven Greene, chef-owner of Devereaux’s [3] in Greenville, S.C., is using a vacuum-packaging machine to produce what he calls “compressed fruits” for multiple dishes. In his crab salad, he combines pickled watermelon rind and “linguine” of cucumber, or sheets of cucumber stripped on a mandoline, with diced, compressed watermelon and watermelon essence.

To produce the watermelon ingredients, he takes thick slices of the fruit, removes the rind for pickling and packs the fruit sous vide—a French term meaning “under vacuum.” The pressure, he says, turns the deep red melon solids translucent and concentrates the juices inside the flesh.

“It really intensifies the flavor,” says Greene, who then dices the watermelon. The concentrated juices that do run off are added to more watermelon, which is then puréed. “To that we add mirin, lime juice and honey, and let that strain through a coffee filter overnight to make it really clear. The flavor is incredible.”

Greene also is compressing peaches and apricots, which he says are abundant in South [4] Carolina now. Though naturally opaque, he says compressed peach takes on a golden luminescence when compacted sous vide.

“When it’s compressed, the form is a lot tighter-looking on the plate,” says Greene, who tosses the peaches in a solution of simple syrup, ascorbic acid and water prior to vacuum packing. “It’s infused with all that extra flavor, which intensifies it overall.”

Greene’s strawberry shortcake uses white-pepper panna cotta and a cone of strawberry frozen yogurt. The dish is garnished with strawberry jam and a late-harvest Gewürztraminer fluid gel.

Tim Graham, executive chef at Tru [5] in Chicago, uses sous vide in other ways to prepare a chilled soup of strawberries, rhubarb, black currants and lemon grass. To soften the rhubarb and intensify its flavor, he seals the raw fruit and then cooks it sous vide-style in that package. The end product is puréed.

He freezes the strawberries to break down the cells, and then packs them under heavy pressure to force out the strawberry water. The juice is strained through cheesecloth overnight to clarify it. The rhubarb and strawberry products then are blended with a stock made from lemon grass and accented with lavender.

“Right now that’s selling really well, and I anticipate it’ll do even better when the weather gets hotter,” Graham says.

Like Graham and many other chefs, John McClure, chef-owner of Starker’s Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., also is pairing strawberries and rhubarb, but to a slightly different end. Where strawberries often are used to tame rhubarb’s inherent tartness, McClure works to give each ingredient equal palate presence in a fresh compote. After dicing the rhubarb and cooking it with sugar and lemon juice, he adds the strawberries at the very end to maintain their natural sweetness.

“That way we get the flavor of both the rhubarb and the strawberries to come out,” says McClure. The resulting compote is spooned over a salad of foie gras, strawberries and pistachios. “I want the tartness of the rhubarb to come through because I like it to cut through the richness of the foie gras.”

Just peachy

Greene and Graham also are using sweet summer fruits as the basis for savory foils for foie gras. Depending on which is available, Graham is combining peaches or nectarines with shallots, black pepper and lemon verbena to make a spread for a foie gras appetizer.

Drawing on his vacuum machine again, Greene cores peaches, briefly poaches them in simple syrup and vanilla and vacuum seals them. He follows that with a low-temperature poach in the packages. When finished, the peach is cooled and stuffed with a blend of honey and mascarpone cheese and served alongside seared foie gras and a vanilla, saffron and onion chutney. The dish is garnished with a blueberry and Muscat jus.

Oliver Ridgeway, executive chef and food and beverage director at the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, N.M., is grilling peaches to add a piquant but pleasant contrast to their inherent sweetness. After charring them lightly, he dices half the peaches and purées the other half with sauternes and icing sugar, and then folds the peach products back together.

“You get a smoky grilled flavor matched with the sweet, lovely peach flavor,” Ridgeway says. “We pair that with a torchon of foie gras, brioche and ice wine syrup.”

Easy and “tasty”

Originally from England, Ridgeway acknowledges his heritage when berries are in season by making a traditional English summer pudding. Blending blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, he cooks them with a little sugar to coax out their juices. He then lines cups with thin slices of brioche, spoons in the berries and juice, and closes the top by making a lid from another slice of brioche.

“We let that set overnight, and then the next day we turn it out onto the dish, and you’ve got this lovely purple dome,” Ridgeway says. “It’s completely purple, and though it’s really simple, it’s really tasty.”

Unlike Ridgeway, Matt Hughes, executive chef at Manhattan’s Blue Water Grill [6], is all but ignoring tradition by making a stone fruit gazpacho. As of late June, Hughes was “grabbing all the peaches and plums we can find” to purée for the savory soup. To boost the soup’s acidity, he adds rice wine vinegar and lemon juice. To add texture, he doesn’t peel the fruits.

“If you leave the skins on the fruit, you get some of the tannins that you wouldn’t get if you used just peeled fruit,” Hughes says. “It’s definitely more of a savory soup. We add some basil, mint and even rosemary. Cucumber works very well, too.”

When Hughes’ suppliers start bringing him heirloom tomatoes in July, he’ll char them on the grill and purée them with watermelon and basil to produce a vinaigrette for a prosciutto-wrapped shrimp dish.

“I’ll add jalapeños for spice, some onion and rice wine vinegar to that,” he says. “But no straining; I like to leave a little bit of body in it or it becomes watery.”