A recipe from the late Matt Haley: uncomplicated, rich and smokily sweet
As a food writer, I could always count on Matt Haley for a recipe, a quote or an opinion — on just about anything. The coastal chef-restaurateur and I became friendly over the phone, but I didn’t meet him in person until around 2006, when I told him I’d never been to the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. Without hesitation, he offered to take me, and I met him in the CVS parking lot on Route 1 one Saturday morning and climbed into his pickup truck.
Once on the grounds of the Lewes Historical Society, where the market is held, we stopped at the table of a vendor, whom he knew by name. Haley picked up a bunch of thyme. I was not a fan, I said. It took too much time to chop. He gently ran his fingers down a stem, pulling against the tiny leaves, which fluttered like petals to the table. It was that easy.
Then again, Haley always made cooking seem approachable. The chef, who learned the culinary arts in a post-prison vocational program and worked his way up from minimum-wage earner to restaurant owner, preferred a straightforward approach to pretty much everything. In his eight restaurants, grouped under the SoDel Concepts umbrella, he looked for ways to enhance an ingredient’s flavor without overwhelming it. He also appreciated comfort foods. The first special-occasion dish he ever made was fettuccine carbonara, and he kept the blackened skillet in which he made it. Deviled eggs, Brussels sprouts, white beans, fried chicken and fried oysters were menu staples, but he gave them a kick. Deviled eggs, for instance, might come with a scrapple chip. Chicken was bathed in buttermilk before frying and served with ham-and-corn gravy.
He was always experimenting. In the early years at Bluecoast Seafood Grill, Haley’s first restaurant in the group, he would burst into the restaurant’s kitchen with bags of ingredients purchased along the route from his house in Rehoboth Beach Yacht & Country Club to North Bethany. (Haley knew about all the small farm stands in the area.) “I have fond memories of spending hours upon hours with Matt,” says Doug Ruley, then the chef at Bluecoast and now the corporate chef and vice president of SoDel Concepts. “We would be two chefs creating in our happy place, always bouncing ideas and flavors off each other.”
Ruley and Haley created some 200 recipes for the cookbook that Haley longed to write. In 2013, a year before he died suddenly from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in India, he and I started working on the cookbook in earnest. He felt the need to finally pull it all together — and there was a lot to assemble.
The well-traveled Haley wanted the book to be an autobiography told through the recipes and the many photos of foods and destinations, including Nepal and India, that he took on his iPhone, often at an artsy angle. When I told him that cookbooks today are focused on an ingredient, a style, a type of cuisine or a geographic region, it fell on deaf ears. He would call it “Matt’s Cookbook,” he maintained, and there would be chapters for simple syrups, salts, oils, spices, jams, appetizers, dips, pasta, sodas and dessert. After he started making ice cream at home, he decided to add a chapter on that. I gave up trying to herd him in one direction and went with the flow — a far easier path than changing his mind.
His recipes are uncomplicated and rich in flavor, heightened by rosemary or lemon salt, a butter made with garlic, honey or Tabasco or an herb-infused oil — all homemade items that lined the shelves in his home pantry. For Haley, a fresh ingredient made the difference. Once he peered at the kale salad with blue cheese he’d just made for me, picked up a Granny Smith apple and leaned over to slice it directly into my salad. It made the dish.
He favored fresh herbs, particularly thyme, because of its sweet and savory applications, Ruley says. “He loved to use thyme in simple syrups for cocktails and, eventually, our Cherry Thyme Lime Soda.”
In mid-2014, when Haley won three national honors, including being named the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year, he was too busy to refine the recipes. He was also going through a second round of treatment for prostate cancer, which was successful.
Sadly, the cookbook was still a work in progress at the time of his death last August. But, as it turned out, Haley didn’t need it to create a lasting culinary legacy. His recipes are woven into the SoDel Concepts restaurants. His original dishes are still being served or they’re platforms for a fresh take by those he mentored. Indeed, his cooking style has influenced chefs up and down the Delaware coast, and some have opened restaurants with more than a hint of Haley’s influence.
This recipe for grilled peaches with black pepper ricotta, thyme and balsamic-honey was one that Haley and Ruley created together. “It’s a clear example of what was — and is — Matt’s style of cookery: start fresh and local, let the ripe peach be the star of the show and add depth and character to the dish by grilling the peach so the sweetness is magnified and there’s a slight hint of smoke,” Ruley says. “The saltiness and the fat of the ricotta give it a great mouth appeal and balance. The balsamic-honey ties it all together, and the fresh thyme is an unexpected but delightful addition.”
Buy local peaches in season. They should be newly ripened, so you can still slice them with a knife, Ruley says. Serve the dish family-style as a starter or as a side with grilled pork or chicken. As Haley would do, enjoy the full flavor of the sweet peach dish with good friends, and make the most of every moment.
Grilled Local Peaches with Black Pepper Ricotta, Thyme & Balsamic Honey
4 large ripe peaches
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup of ricotta cheese
½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of honey
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stem
2 ounces of fresh, tender greens (mache or arugula)
Heat the outdoor grill and clean the grates. Quarter the peaches and toss them in olive oil and sea salt. Grill the peaches flesh side down until charred, about two to three minutes. Flip so the skin side is down and grill for another minute. Remove from the grill.
Place the ricotta in a bowl. Add the black pepper and lightly fold (three to four folds will do). Set aside. In another bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar and the honey until they’re incorporated. Set aside. Arrange the grilled peaches on a serving platter and drizzle the balsamic-honey. Top with the black pepper ricotta. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over top the peaches. Garnish with the greens, a touch of sea salt and drizzle of olive oil.