The July farmers’ market is a paradise of seasonal produce. Between peak-of-perfection corn; crispy cucumbers; colorful summer squash; plump eggplants; fragrant peaches and nectarines; juicy plums and pluots; an extensive variety of flavorful melons; sweet-tart raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and strawberries—not to mention those much sought-after vine-ripened tomatoes—a girl can go a little overboard shopping. And I do. Every week. And I never regret it.
After loading up on farm-fresh produce on Saturday mornings, lunches and dinners practically plan themselves for the rest of the week. It’s easy—and fun—to eat these delectable, healthy foods without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. But whenever you’re in the mood to play in the kitchen, there’s probably no better time of year to do it.
I was recently asked to judge a number of culinary entries at my local county fair; the first competition I attended was in the preserved foods category. Six judges were divided into teams of two, so we could taste our way through the almost-200 entries in one day. I paired up with a chef I know professionally, and we immediately high-tailed it over to the jams and jellies division, where the risk of botulism seemed less likely. (Just kidding, folks!)
As we systematically made our way down the long tables laden with glistening jars—holding each one up to the light to check appearance, popping lids, and madly scribbling tasting notes—I began to have serious doubts about my sense of taste. The overwhelming sensation I was getting was from sugary-sweetness—no fruit, and no acid. While gnawing on my tenth cracker in an effort to cleanse my palate, I mentioned this to my partner, who seemed almost relieved that I had spoken up. He not only agreed wholeheartedly, he added that if we were tasting these items blind, he’d be hard-pressed to identify the type of fruit that was used to make many of these jams. All we could assume is that the majority of the entrants began their preserving process with unripe or otherwise inferior fruit.
It was such an incredible waste, when you consider the time and the money spent preparing these products. So I think the message here is pretty obvious: canners and preservers beware. Your finished product is only as good as the ingredients you put into it. If you really want to capture the flavors of summer in a jar, start by using organic or other high-quality produce at its peak of ripeness. Chances are, you’re not going to find it at the warehouse store.
And when it comes to eating fresh summer fruit, simpler is usually better. I mean, is there anything better than a juicy, tree-ripened peach eaten out of hand? But granted, there are certain special occasions when you may want to glam things up a bit for your friends and family. For those times I’ve provided an easy recipe that looks appropriately showy, yet comes together without breaking a sweat. And in deference to the pastry-phobic, it relies on frozen puff pastry for its delicate, flaky crust. Use your favorite berry, or a mixed jumble of whatever fresh fruits you have on hand. If you’re interested in saving calories, substitute plain Greek-style yogurt for the mascarpone.
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of a 17.25 ounce package), thawed as package directs
1 tub mascarpone cheese (about 8 ounces), at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, well chilled
2 tablespoons honey, or more, to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 6 cups ripe berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, or blackberries
Confectioners’ (powdered) sugar, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Unfold the cold puff pastry sheet onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. With the tip of a sharp knife, score a 3/4-inch border all around the pastry. Use the tines of a fork to prick the pastry all over within the border. (If the pastry has become soft, refrigerate or freeze it on the baking sheet for a few minutes until firm.) Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden and baked through, about 15 minutes. Lift the parchment to transfer the pastry onto a wire rack. Let cool completely, at least 15 minutes. (Pastry can be baked several hours in advance and left to stand at room temperature.)
Combine the mascarpone, cream, honey, and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Taste, beating in more honey if you like.
Just before serving, spoon the cheese mixture into the crust, spreading evenly. Pile the berries on top and dust generously with powdered sugar. Cut into squares with a serrated knife. Serves 6. This tart is best eaten the same day it is made.