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An altered summer classic: Caprese salad

I hate the summer.

At least, I feel like I have for a long time now. Something about being a chef, working long days that turn into long nights, working in an especially warm environment even without the help of Mother Nature, working nights and weekends when you know all your friends are out having fun.

These reasons (and probably a few more that I don’t want to share in a widely distributed publication like this) are why, since I started working in restaurants, I have not liked summertime.

I suppose that even when I was a kid, it wasn’t my favorite time of the year. I was always way more into indoor activities than outside ones, and I am not ashamed to admit I don’t know how to swim.

As a kid I always had problems with my ears and couldn’t go underwater, and still, to this day, I abhor the feeling of being underwater. It’s unnatural. If we were meant to be underwater we would have gills; last time I checked, I haven’t grown any gills yet.

But as I grew into a teenager and had friends in high school who didn’t share my aquatic reluctance, I was, on several occasions, gently peer pressured into “jumping” out of my comfort zone.

The most memorable of these occasions occurred in Jersey Mills, up Pine Creek. Before the old green bridge was replaced with a more modern design, it was a popular place for locals to jump.

After many trips to the Jersey Mills Bridge ending in my steadfast decision to stay on the bridge, my friends had had enough. I held out as long as I could, but my late, great friend Brandon Berry literally stopped traffic on the bridge both ways until I jumped. I’ll never forget the smile on Brandon’s face or the angry man in the van shouting at me to jump so he could continue with his day before I closed my eyes and stepped into oblivion.

Spoiler alert: I survived and gained some valuable street cred for my attempt, and all it cost me was a pair of flip-flops. Remembering my old friends and this treasured memory makes me think maybe I don’t hate summer, after all.

I think, as I continue to get older, I don’t mind the hot summer weather as much. I also think I am starting to hate the colder winter months a lot more than I used to.

This all sounds like a lesson I should have heeded from one of my older relatives, warning me that at some point my temperature preferences would change — along with my hairline and waistline.

Those milestones in life are all starting to arrive, more quickly than I ever thought possible. But with age comes wisdom, as well as changes in likes and dislikes, and with that wisdom I am starting to appreciate some of the other things that come along with summertime. I really like going to work in the daylight and leaving work in the daylight, something I took for granted during my vampire-like 20s.

But for a chef, the most redeeming quality of summer has to be the fresh produce. The farmer’s markets this time of year are teeming with all sorts of fresh deliciousness.

My favorite two summertime produce items are peaches and tomatoes. While they are both very different looking items, they have a lot in common.

They both have a certain sweetness to them with a depth of other flavors in the background, and I think they can have a similar mouth feel. I definitely wouldn’t say that they are interchangeable, but I think they complement each other quite well.

So for this month’s recipe, I am sharing a slightly altered version of an old classic: The caprese salad. Infused with grilled peaches and drizzled with a maple syrup and balsamic vinegar reduction, this dish will change your perception of both fruits.

So try this recipe out at home and see what you think. Just make sure you wait 30 minutes after eating before you jump off a bridge. Cheers!

Grilled peach and tomato caprese salad

Start to finish: 30 Minutes

Servings: 4

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

1/4 cup fresh basil, chiffonade

2 fresh peaches, pit removed, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 heirloom or vine-ripened tomatoes, ripe, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 four ounce balls of fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 ounces chevre goat cheese

2 teaspoons smoked sea salt (optional)

Kosher salt, to taste (if not using smoked salt)

Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat your favorite grill to medium-high.

Heat a medium-sized saucepot over medium-high heat. Add the vinegar and maple syrup and bring to a low simmer. Allow mixture to reduce in volume by about half. The reduction is done when it can coat the back of a spoon. Once reduced enough, transfer to a wide container and chill until it reaches room temperature.

While the reduction is cooking and cooling, mark your peaches on the grill. Lightly spray your grill with nonstick spray, and place the peach slices on the grates. Wait for about 15 seconds, then turn 45 degrees to create diamond-shaped grill marks. Flip to repeat with the other side, and set peaches aside. Be sure not to burn or overcook; the peaches should still be firm on the inside.

On four salad plates, arrange the peach slices, fresh mozzarella and tomato slices in that order until they are divided up amongst the four portions. Crumble the goat cheese and evenly spread over the salads. Then evenly spread the basil over the salads. Season with the smoked salt or kosher salt, and fresh cracked pepper. Lastly, drizzle with the maple-balsamic reduction. Enjoy right away.

— Culinary Creations is a partnership with Pennsylvania College of Technology’s School of Business & Hospitality and its Le Jeune Chef restaurant, a column by Christopher R. Grove, Sous Chef II at Le Jeune Chef. Watch for Grove’s culinary tips and advice the last Wednesday of each month in The Taste.

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