Month of Berries
We are nearing the end of our month of berries, and I admit to some relief. The berries have come from our CSA box, our current yard, and (thanks to freezing) the yard of our previous house. Our last house, a rental, had a very tidy raspberry patch. The patch was contained in a neat 2'x8' area from which wooden posts rose to support wires that ran the length of the patch. As soon as the raspberry canes grew tall enough, I went to the yard and tied each cane to a wire using twine. Left to their own devices, the raspberries would droop and sag under the weight of their leaves and fruit. Tied to the wires, the canes would grow more or less upward two more feet before leaning to one side. The difference meant that there was more space between the canes, making it easier to harvest raspberries. The patch was surrounded by lawn from which no raspberries sprung, a mystery that puzzles me to this day. My best guess is that our landlords dug the raspberry pit and lined it with concrete, to prevent errant roots from invading the yard.
Our current yard has a valiant attempt at a tidy raspberry patch which captures canes and other plants between the chain link fence bordering our yard and a double -round-top folding fence. These berries are not tidy nor are they contained in any kind of organized fashion. The difference between these canes and the wild canes growing at a nearby park is that these canes are in our yard. Runners appear two dozen feet away, are cut back, and appear again two weeks later. There is no point cutting back the main patch this summer--the canes will grow again, and we will lose a harvest of berries. We will wait until the fall, when the canes die back, to reclaim our yard.
Our month of berries begins with the first CSA box from Helsing Junction Farm, which includes two pints of strawberries. After the fine example of Dairy Queen, we make strawberry margaritas with one pint and munch through the second pint. The fresh strawberries are so good that we don't need anything with them--they are sweet, juicy, and delicious. This year, we had the option to forego receiving flowers from our CSA, which we took. Instead of weekly flowers, we will receive a flat of strawberries and a bulk share of potatoes, onions and garlic. We have no idea what we will do with an entire flat of strawberries and do not give the matter any consideration until the second week of our CSA subscription.
Week two of the CSA subscription coincides with the ripening of our raspberries. I walk back from the pick-up point (Helsing Junction drops boxes at a central point in each neighborhood, something I like because it reduces their fuel costs and gives the members an opportunity for a good walk) feeling amused by week's share: carrots, arugula, lettuce, onions, chard, delicious scapes--and 5 pints of strawberries. We recently visited my aunt in Idaho and were reminded of how delicious freezer jam can be. Rather than make margaritas, I decide to make freezer jam. I don't want to make jam during the middle of the week, so I hull (remove the green bit), clean and slice the strawberries and then put then into a freezer container. My plan is to make freezer jam all at once, though that plan doesn't pan out.
Since we have a number of ripe raspberries, I also pick a few cups from our yard. The weekend is very hot (at least for Seattle), and I decide to try a drink that has been in mind for a few weeks. I had encountered chocolate mint at a nursery on Queen Anne in May, and was pleased by the combination of mint and chocolate in a single plant. The nursery was out of plants when I returned, but I left my name and asked that they call me when their next shipment of plants arrives. The plants arrived in mid-June and were potted and placed on our dilapidated deck the following weekend. I'd never potted plants before, but mint is hard to kill and the plants seem to be thriving.
For Seattle, "hot" means that the temperature is above 70 and that the humidity is below 50%. Over the weekend, the thermometer passes 90 and I don't even want to think about how low the humidity drops. (You wouldn't know from my reaction to the heat that I grew up on the Great Basin Desert.) I decide to make raspberry chocolate mint coolers using raspberry and chocolate mint from our yard, ice and soda water. The mint tastes like peppermint and has almost no chocolate flavor, unlike my memory from May, but the concoction is refreshing in the heat.
The week before the 4th of July, I pick up our CSA share and our flat of strawberries. The CSA share includes one pint of strawberries, which means that I have 13 pints of strawberries. Last year, we made strawberry ice cream and strawberry sorbet out of our strawberries, but this year I plan to use most of the berries in a way that will make them last through the winter.
I make raspberry and strawberry freezer jam, a process that involves chopping berries, mixing them with several pounds of sugar, adding boiling pectin-water, and stirring for three minutes. The pectin-water thickens the jam overnight, and freezing the jam preserves it for about a year. The process of making freezer jam is much easier than making regular jam, which involves boiling the jam and then boiling the jars in a canning apparatus. Considering the summer heat, I'm not surprised that freezer jam (which spares us the heat generated by a boiling pot of jam and the boiling water of a canning pot) has become popular. The raspberry jam is made using a mixture of fresh berries from our yard and frozen berries that we picked from our old yard last year and moved with us.
I work at home, and that arrangement gives me the opportunity to make a strawberry pie during the work day. I make the dough in the morning and refrigerate it (following the recipe) until lunchtime. The filling winds up with slightly more than the 5 cups of sliced strawberries called for in the recipe, and I incorrectly judge this as not a problem. I pour the filling over the bottom crust, cover the pie with the top crust, and place the pie into a 425 degree oven. I would like to point out one thing:
Julia child is purported to have said that if no one but the cook sees something happen in the kitchen, then it never happened.
My wife, the Butter Bitch told me this, and it may even be true. The Butter Bitch does not work from home, and all she knows is that the strawberry pie tastes delicious. I will add that if you have an overfull covered pie, you should ignore the recipe's direction and place a baking sheet under the pie immediately, not after 30 minutes. This means that you may have to bake the pie for longer depending on your oven (a baking sheet under the pie reflects heat away from the pie in some ovens).
I will also add that I can recommend a very nice window fan, one which can clear the smoke from a kitchen within a few minutes.
The pie really is delicious, and I say that not just because I ate 5 of the pieces in 48 hours. The Butter Bitch eats the other three pieces over the course of the three days leading up to the long weekend.
A few days later, I pick the last of the raspberries from our bushes and mix them with the last strawberries from our CSA flat. I run out of sugar and realize that I still need half a cup. The recipe calls for 6 cups of sugar and, according to the Butter Bitch's mother and aunts and my aunt, we should not skimp on the sugar. Actually, the mixed berry freezer jam recipe calls for corn syrup and sugar as well as black raspberries, which I don't have. I decide to combine the recipes for red raspberries and strawberries. I crush two cups of strawberries and one cup raspberries, add 5 1/2 cups of regular sugar, and decide to experiment by adding 1/2 cup of brown sugar. I also add the juice from a small lemon, which is included in the strawberry and two berry recipes but not the red raspberry recipe. The high amount of sugar is required not just because the berries are tart but because the pectin (the thickening agent) is very bitter. The mixture is pretty good, more strawberry than raspberry, with a faint taste of richness from the brown sugar.
All told, I make a lot of jam that is stored in the freezer (except for two pints that a friend happily takes) and one pie:
- 5 pints of raspberry jam
- 4 pints of mixed berry jam
- 15 pints of strawberry jam
- one covered strawberry pie
(Pictures of the jam and pies, sadly, were lost due to a bad roll of film.)
Were all of the strawberries used in the above concoctions? Almost. At some point I had an extra pint, not enough for jam but enough to make something. We had moved on to "summer water" (our name for gin and tonic) with the increasing heat, and I wanted to use the berries for something other than margaritas. It happened that I was reading the June 19 issue of The New Yorker (I was a little behind in my reading) and came across an interesting profile of a dessert maker in New York. The article is by Bill Buford, covers the time he spent working for Will Goldfarb at Room 4 Dessert and, alas, is not available online (go to your local library if you don't have a subscription). Goldfarb is a wee bit obsessive, and his presentations are creative and outrageous--apple slices stapled in cellophane, anyone?
I'd long wanted to try making a balsamic vinegar reduction sauce to serve over sliced strawberries, and Goldfarb's creativity leads me to try something out of the ordinary. For dinner one night, I cook Swiss chard with raisins and nuts along with steak and a hearty Arizonan red wine. Fresh chard can throw off a lot of liquid when cooked, and this batch was no different. I have 1-2 cups of liquid left over from onions, chard, olive oil, and water called for by the recipe. The liquid also tastes slightly of raisins, lending a sweet complement to the chard's earthiness.
After dinner, I clean, hull and slice the strawberries and place them on two plates, which are placed uncovered in the refrigerator. The berries will break down a little and leak juices during the few minutes it takes to reduce the sauce. I add some balsamic vinegar to the chard broth. How much do I add? Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of a Cup, enough for the broth to have a sharp vinegar taste. I want the balsamic flavor to survive the reduction process.
Reducing liquid is easy in theory, but can be an unwieldy process depending on your stove and sauce pan. Our old stove had electric burners which were close enough together that I could put one edge of the pan on an inactive burner and half the pan on the active burner. Our new stove has gas burners, which introduces an element of excitement when half the burner is exposed, and the burners are spaced in a way that it isn't easy to balance the pan between two burners. Heat resistant ramekins will help support the pan in such a situation.
What you do is take a liquid and cook it over medium high or high heat until the volume of the liquid is reduced and the liquid thickens. How much you reduce the volume and how thick you let the liquid become depends on the recipe. (Better directions are in Chez Panisse Cooking under the recipe for braised duck legs.)
I position the sauce pan halfway over the heating element over medium high to high heat and wait until half the liquid is boiling and bubbling steadily. The liquid can burn to the bottom of the pan, and in this instance it is helpful to have a nonstick pan. I reduce the liquid to roughly one-sixth of the original volume until it is the consistency of warm maple syrup. (The sauce in the duck recipe is closer to the consistency of molasses.) I pour the sauce over the plated strawberries and put a small amount onto a spoon, which I present to the Butter Bitch for tasting. She is aware of the ingredients.
"It's meaty," she informs me.
"Is that a bad thing?"
"No, but it is meaty."
"How is it with the wine?" Before she can answer, I offer her a strawberry slice with sauce on a spoon followed by her glass of wine. She chews thoughtfully and sips her wine, which is earthy and strong--good meat wine.
"It's still meaty." I'm not sure whether that is a bad thing, but she eats all of her strawberries without trying to separate them from the sauce (a potentially fruitless endeavor). After she is done, she tells me that she enjoyed the dessert.
The dessert does have a slightly meaty taste that disappears behind the tart sweetness of the strawberries and balsamic vinegar. We also taste the faint flavor of raisins and a savory earthiness that must come from the chard. The wine complements the dessert well, and while I wouldn't rank this dish with the works of the Dessert King, I am pleased with the quirkiness of the results.
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