As the temperature warms in North Carolina, we enter the height of culinary pleasures: fruit season. Right now, spring strawberries are ceding way to blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and that Southern star, the peach. Chefs all over town are dreaming up the tastiest tarts, pies, cobblers ... and gastriques, compotes and salsas, too.
Let me introduce you to the savory side of summer. We are all familiar with the sweet treatment of fruits, but these delectable darlings can play more than one role in the kitchen. At Santé restaurant in downtown Matthews, chef Adam Reed has done his fair share of strawberry shortcake. But he's also been serving a strawberry gastrique with his duck breast entrée.
Reed explained that a gastrique sauce is based on a "caramelization of sugar with a reduction of vinegar." To this rich concoction he adds some ginger and strawberries, which he buys at the Matthews Community Farmers Market right across the street from the restaurant. He describes the resulting syrupy sauce as having a "tangy and acidic flavor, but it's also sweet," which is the reason he enjoys using sweet fruits in savory ways.
"As chefs, we like to play with people's palates ... hitting all the different spots on the tongue." By using a fruit with natural sugars, he can literally hit the "sweet spot" on the tongue while adding those other flavors we expect with savory dishes, like acid and salt. Besides, it's just plain fun. "It's a matter of being a little more out of the box."
Of course, now that summer's moving in, strawberries are giving their last gasp. So now what? Well, after we talked, Reed texted me that his regular supplier, Pat Sain at Pat's Pickin's, will be bringing his first blueberries to market this Saturday. So to accompany a Grateful Growers' pork chop entrée, Reed will be making a savory sauce, reducing "a whole mess of blueberries" to add to the usual base of mirepoix (sautéed onions, carrots and celery.)
Over at Block & Grinder, Ben Philpott also enjoys finding savory ways to serve sweet fruits. "It's a surprise component," he told me. "It adds another element of flavor that's not commonly used." Being from Georgia, his choice of fruit is no surprise, though. "I love me some peaches!" He says they work well in savory dishes because they're "kind of sweet and tart at the same time, and the texture holds up" when heated. "They don't turn to mush."
Although it will be another week or two before truly local peaches come in, Philpott is already planning on a charred peach salsa he describes as "sweet, tart and hot all at the same time. " He'll mix the charred peaches with diced onions, jalapenos and garlic, and spice it up with some chili and paprika, like "regular salsa, with no tomatoes." It will be served as a hearty accompaniment to meatier fish such as mahi mahi or swordfish, although he said it also pairs well with pork.
Never fear, dessert lovers, peach cobbler will still be on the menu. "I'm a Georgia boy," Philpott pointed out. "I grew up on that."