A Salad in Dishabille

While vacationing on the beaches of North Carolina, and spending as many hours watching the Food Network as dipping my feet in the ocean, I began to feel a little ... I suppose I could call it a foodcrush taking hold ... a foodcrush on, well ... a certain Jamie Oliver. Yep, that would be The Naked Chef.

This foodcrush isn't based on the winning power of his crooked smile or English accent (and I will never admit otherwise). The Jamie Oliver foodcrush has everything to do with the food I watched him make while wearing my pajamas in the hotel at noon while my husband (wearing a seer-sucker!) read Charles Taylor on the beach.

A food blogger deprived of the Food Network in her own home makes for a food blogger especially vulnerable to food celebrities and food porn. I admired Giada's breasts and tiramisu. I wanted to touch Paula Deen's hair and taste her fried chicken. I marveled at Rachel Ray's stamina. Iron Chef made me strangely nostalgic for Star Trek. As I watched the challenger break into a sweat, I could just hear Leonard "Bones" McCoy saying through clenched teeth, "I'm a doctor, not an Iron Chef."

And then there was Jamie. He made a leek and prosciutto pasta topped with porcini bread crumbs, which I promptly cooked once back in Pittsburgh, but didn't post--despite its tastiness--because it seemed to resemble this recipe too closely, and, considering the recent paucity of posts, I didn't want to seem like a one-trick pony. Then, Jamie grilled some octopus, tossed it with radicchio and chorizo sauteed in garlic. I had never imagined such a thing: simple, rustic, and--so it seemed to me at the time--a bit on the bawdy side. I suppose that's why Mr. Oliver fashions himself The Naked Chef, an infelicitous appellation, perhaps, read through foodcrush-tinted glasses, it seems not only not silly, but (at the risk of reader eye-rolling) earnest.

This recipe strikes me as naked indeed: juicy peaches, fresh mozzarella, greens lightly dressed in lemon and olive oil, mint to keep things cool, and pepper flakes to spice them up. It's a sweet, milky, tart, and piquant salad, just the thing for humid summer nights. I don't recall ever pairing mozzarella with peaches, but let me tell you now, this is a lovely marriage. I couldn't help but think that the pale and mild mozzarella was taking on the sweet peaches' blush. Cringe, if you will, but I can't help it. This salad is sentimental love poetry on a plate.

While writing this post I remembered that I had already posted a peach salad recipe. It was spinach-based, and featured feta instead of mozzarella. This was the first recipe I posted after moving to Pittsburgh. I was weary of unpacking boxes in the heat, but giddy about an imminent kitchen renovation which has yet to happen. This peach salad recipe may be less imbued with the sort of kitchen fantasies materialized in the form of stainless steel appliances and subway tile backsplashes; instead, it musters fantasies of simple summer dinners prepared in a cramped, ugly kitchen, and eaten in good company. These are fantasies stripped of finery. Thanks, Jamie.

Peach and Mozzarella Salad
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef Takes Off. Serves 2.

If this recipe has a flaw--and I'm not saying it necessarily does--it would be that it can veer from moist toward soggy. It's a good idea to drain your mozzarella thoroughly, pat it dry, and maybe even press it between paper towels before tearing it into chunks. If your peaches are especially juicy, go easy on the lemon and olive oil dressing.

Good mozzarella doesn't come cheap, and this is not the place to skimp on quality because those rugged little hills of mozzarella are really what make the dish. I've been quite happy with the two brands I've found at Whole Foods, but I've sworn off the stuff sold by Trader Joe's. I've tried it quite a few times in the interest of saving a buck, but found it to be consistently flavorless and rubbery. And that makes for a sad mozzarella.

Jamie Oliver's recipe includes a few thin slices of prosciutto. Sounds good to me, but I didn't have any on hand, and I can't say I missed it.

2 ripe peaches, pitted, peeled (only if you like), and cut into wedges
4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into chunks
2 cups salad greens
2 tablespoons lemon juice
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and fresh ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon-1 teaspoon dried pepper flakes (some like it hot, some like it not)
a handful of fresh mint leaves

Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss salad greens in this dressing and divide between two plates. Arrange peach slices and mozzarella on top of greens. Sprinkle with pepper flakes and mint leaves.


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