We Love Cooking! + [summer]

:: Strawberry Season 1/2
strawberry mint canapé eaten in situ, dirty hands and all

My mom called me last week to tell me she'd eaten the first of the berries from her newly planted patch. "It was amazing," she sighed, "like they used to be when you were young." While I can't say for sure how good store-bought strawberries were when I was a kid, I do know that 20-some years of agribusiness hasn't done the strawberry any favors. Typically, they are as big as they are bland, streaked with white inside and dry as a sun-baked bone. They contain only the barest hint of what they could be were they ripened to a bright red by the sun, picked in season and eaten immediately.

fresh picked strawberries in the sun

Craigie on Main, a local restaurant, makes an admirable proclamation on their menu, "sorry, no tomatoes til August." It's an acknowledgment of the fact that local tomatoes eaten in season are pretty much the only tomatoes worth serving and eating. While it might seem sad to not have a tomato at any other time of the year, it turns that moment in which local tomatoes are available into a celebration of the perfection to be found in eating locally and seasonally. It's in that spirit that I also advocate a "sorry, no strawberries 'til June" position, but you know what? It's June!

picking in the field

This is the strawberry moment for New England. The fields are full of juicy red fruit, ready to tumble from the stem into an outstretched hand. And that's just what they did on a recent trip out to Western Massachusetts where we spent the morning picking.

my first strawberry in the garden

Even the plants in my newly inherited community garden plot are bearing fruit, despite being uncared for over the winter. Next year I expect they will be even more plentiful, but this year they are good only for a quick garden snack, which is probably fine since I had so many other berries to deal with from the picking trip.

There's little that can improve upon the experience of a perfectly ripe strawberry, heavy with sun-warmed juice, but a freshly plucked mint leaf is a nice touch, the cool sharpness contrasting with subtle sweet-tart warmth.

rosemary orange shortcake with strawberries in syrup and vegan whipped cream

If you do insist on messing about with these perfect berries though, I can't think of many better ways than to go with the classic strawberry shortcake. Of course, I really can't help but mess about, which is how this one-off shortcake was born. Thinking of the natural affinity between strawberries and oranges and a less obvious connection between berries and astringent herbs, I employed my orange-rosemary sugar to make spelt biscuits with lots of flavor and a little more substance than usual, but with all the flaky tender-crumbed charm of a standard shortcake. Instead of macerating the strawberries with sugar, a process usually employed to soften the berries slightly and make them give up some of their juices, I tossed the already juicy and soft berries with a strawberry syrup, made with instruction from the new and wonderful book, The Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Sweet Preserves.

Moscato d'Asti and strawberry syrup

The syrup is a simple matter of macerating the berries with sugar and letting them sit overnight before cooking them down, pureeing and straining the mixture. It yields a gorgeous thick syrup that is purely, deliciously full of strawberry flavor. It's wonderful over waffles and refreshing mixed into sparkling water or sparkling wine (I recommend Moscato d'Asti) for a fun brunch drink that mixes things up from the traditional mimosa.