C’mon, we all know Memorial Day weekend is the official start of summer regardless of what else is going on or where the weather stands. It’s also, in my world at least, the start of the summer fruit season. Right now it’s only rhubarb at the market but strawberries are starting to appear followed quickly by the berries, cherries, stone fruits and melons in rapid sucession. With this also comes my habitual need to buy everything in sight. When all that gorgeous fruit is popping, I simply cannot help myself.

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I was an odd college kid when it came to food. My dorm room fridge wasn’t stocked with cheap beer and cold pizza. Rather I had boursin cheese and fancy sausages and juice. More than once, I’d cobble together a dinner in the dining hall from large button mushrooms from the salad bar, microwaved with a little butter until tender. Add some rice and some sort of green vegetable, hopefully not overcooked beyond recognition, and I was good. I’d skip the burgers, the mashed potatoes and the ranch dressing. I’ve never really liked sweetened breakfast cereal and would often give away my pass for steak night. You’d think this would make me a “healthy eater” but not so fast. I ate more than my share of pizza, tacos and French fries. I was just a little discerning sometimes. On weekends, when the school cafeterias were closed and we’d be forced to eat off campus, I didn’t order in the typical burgers or sub sandwiches with my suitemates. Rather, I liked to go a slightly out of the way casual Japanese teriyaki house. A bowl of rice, stir fried vegetables and teriyaki chicken was my idea of a great lunch. For whatever reason, I often flew solo on these adventures.

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As a culinary consultant, I’ve picked up some really nifty tricks over the years. This is one of my favorites. While working on some dips for a Middle Eastern food company, I was asked to make a yogurt based spread with grilled eggplant, sort of a dairy based baba ghanoush. The provided “recipe” was a sheet of paper with an ingredient list typical of baba ghanoush: eggplant, tahini (sesame paste), garlic, lemon, olive oil. No measurements, no notes, no direction of any kind. That was part of my assignment: figure out the recipe and do it fast as the concepts were going to be consumer tested the next day. This is not entirely unusual in my line of work, which is why having a broad range of knowledge and techniques is incredibly helpful. And what I don’t know, google helps fill in the cracks.

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The outdoor farmer’s market season started here two weeks ago. This is a big deal for some of us. We Chicagoans view the start of the outdoor market season as a beacon of hope that better, warmer, sunnier weather is coming. Though this past winter wasn’t too bad, we cling desperately to every little sign possible. It’s been a tough start; the first week was chilly and I was caught in a deluge, arriving at my car soaking wet. The second week was downright cold and I received several warnings not to plant the basil plants I had just purchased until it inched up over 55°F. Oh I know, I replied, I’ve been bitten in the ass by that before. We laughed knowingly as only those who have had to yank out frostbitten tender seedlings can. Looking around, I saw the usual suspects of a new market season: asparagus and rhubarb. Harbingers of spring and predictable or not, into my bag they went.

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Frozen peas were a standard side dish when I was a kid. They were OK; I ate them without any major protests. In the grand scheme of things I found objectionable, peas got a pass. One year we grew fresh peas in the backyard, quite the feat in the Phoenix heat, and were blown away by how delicious they were. But honestly, shelling peas is a lot of work and you needed a lot of pods to get enough peas to feed a family of four. One and done; I don’t think we grew them again after that year. Though I’m loath to say it out loud, opening a bag of frozen peas is easier and though not quite as tasty as fresh, they’re still pretty good. I’m probably going to lose my chef card over that. Whatever.

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Today is Cinqo de Mayo, the day that commenmorates the victory of a Mexican battalion against French military forces in 1862 near the city of Puebla. It’s not a national holiday in Mexico, however, large celebrations do take place in some areas of the country, primarily in the state of Puebla. Growing up in Arizona, it was always bigger than Mexican Independence Day in September and we always celebrated it with margaritas and enchiladas. Classy. This year, rather than enchiladas, I’ve been on an ice cream kick. Big time. Earlier in the week it was horchata with strawberries, today it’s a take on one of the best cakes ever: Tres Leches.

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I do so love a good, cold glass of horchata, that milky ivory-hued beverage often found in taquerias that, if good, tastes like liquified rice pudding. Many places buy it premade or premixed or whatever, but if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a special little gem that makes it from scratch. A place that soaks rice and almonds and cinnamon sticks for a good long while to extract every flavorful bit out of those seemingly innocuous ingredients. When done right, it’s a magical thing.

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