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Posts Tagged ‘strawberries’

Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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The strawberries in my Greenmarket are really good this season. They’re small, dark red, juicy, and sweet.

Quite a contrast to those rubbery, flavorless monstrosities that grocery stores insist on selling all year long. Since they first appeared, Tom and I have been happily eating local strawberries with just a shake of powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon or orange juice. For a change, this week, I decided to try a strawberry shortcake.

I hadn’t been a big fan of shortcake, but a polite husbandly request motivated me. I’ve made desserts by putting strawberries and whipped cream on slices of pound cake or sponge cake, but that’s not quite the same thing. When I’ve made my own shortcake before, using the recipe from Joy of Cooking, what it produced was basically plain biscuits. Too dense, too dry, and too unsweet for a dessert. (The only time Irma Rombauer has ever let me down!) So this week I went hunting in my other cookbooks for a different approach, and I came up with a winner.

As you can see, the cover of the American Cooking volume in the Time-Life Foods of the World series features a luscious-looking strawberry shortcake. No shortcake I’d made ever looked like that! I could see why when I compared the recipe to Joy’s. For the same amount of flour and baking powder, the Time-Life recipe wants three times as much sugar, almost twice as much butter, and only heavy cream, never milk. That guarantees a dough with a lot of character, to match with the intensity of the berries.

The Time-Life recipe also wants the dough rolled an inch thick, versus ¼ inch, and cut in both 3-inch and 2½-inch circles, with each smaller one poised on top of a large one before baking. That’s certainly a more attractive presentation than a single, shallow cake base. Alas, an aesthetic problem developed from that. My double-deckers didn’t behave too well in the oven – the tops slid sideways:

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That may be because I patted the dough out rather than rolling it. I may not have gotten the surfaces perfectly level, and so the tops slid off the lower edges of the bottoms. It didn’t matter, though, because once they’re baked, the layers get separated again. After filling and topping them with berries, and pouring on fresh cream, nobody can see where that upper cake layer started out from.

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I was immensely gratified that, for once, my dish looked so much like the picture in the book, with nary a food stylist in sight. And the whole dessert mini-mountain tasted heavenly. The shortcake had something of a biscuit texture, as it should, but was much lighter than dinner biscuits, the crumb loose enough to absorb only slightly thickened cream readily without dissolving. (Other kinds of cake wouldn’t, but going the whole way and fully whipping cream for the topping can leave the dessert too dry.) The flavor of my shortcake was sweet enough to match perfectly with the berries, making a single flavor entity, not simply a berries-with-something. I think I’ve discovered a new star for my recipe firmament. Brillat-Savarin would be pleased.

Now I need to make it again before the strawberry season ends. After that, maybe blueberries, blackberries, peaches . . . who knows what other fruits that shortcake might like?

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If you live in Manhattan, you have to be a little crazy to go to the trouble of making your own strawberry jam. I do it every year.

It’s not about cost – though jars of premium jam can cost anywhere from $5 to $15 in stores hereabouts. It just pleases me to make my own. It may be pure subjectivity, but I think my homemade jam tastes better – fresher, more like the original fruit – than any of the commercial products. Plus, I like occasionally to imagine myself a frugal, omni-talented pioneer housewife. So early every June, I start my atavistic jam project by buying a batch of the best-looking, best-smelling berries my Greenmarket is offering. Here’s where I bought two quarts this year:

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For making jam, the trouble with strawberries is that they’re very low in natural pectin, which is what makes fruit jell. If you don’t use commercial pectin, you wind up either with something the consistency of fruit sauce or – if you keep resolutely cooking it down – with a leathery gumminess. If you do use commercial pectin, the recipes call for more than 3 parts of sugar to 2 parts of fruit, which produces an intensely sweet jam that barely tastes of strawberry.

I solved that problem for myself four years ago, by donning my pioneer-woman-meets-mad-scientist identity and spending most of a day doing a variety of strawberry jam experiments. I discovered that you can make jam of a good consistency using only equal parts of sugar and fruit, and only one-third of the amount of pectin the recipes call for. I love the bright, fresh fruit flavor that gives me.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I may enjoy it, jam making is a lot of work. So, heads up: The rest of this post is going to be a sort of illustrated “How I spent my summer vacation making strawberry jam.”  If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to click away now.

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First I put one-cup Ball jars, with their metal lids and rims, into a big pot of water and sterilized them by boiling for 10 minutes.

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While that was happening, I washed and hulled the berries, examining each one and cutting out any spoiled bits. Then I crushed them.

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I put them in a large, heavy pot, stirred in the sugar, and brought it to a boil. Kept boiling briskly and stirring steadily until the juice registered 221 degrees F. on a candy thermometer. This is very tedious: The mixture gets up to 200 degrees quite rapidly; then it takes much longer to rise to 220; and that last little degree can take up to 15 more hot, steamy minutes. I don’t know why.

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When it finally got there this time, I stirred in the pectin (4 tablespoons for 4 cups of berries and 4 cups of sugar), boiled for one more minute, turned off the heat and, as soon as the bubbling stopped, skimmed off all the pale pink froth.

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I took my jars out of the pot of water they’d been sitting in, briefly drained them, filled them with the molten jam, and set the lids on, not too tight. The jars are hot, the lids are hot, the jam is hot. Easy to burn your fingers. I get Tom (poor sap) to help me with this step.

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Now comes the clever part. I don’t want to have my freezer filled with jam jars all year long, so they have to be treated so they’ll keep well at room temperature. This used to mean totally submerging the newly filled jars in boiling water, processing them for some time (hoping they don’t explode), and lifting them out to drain (hoping not to scald yourself or flood the kitchen). I was never brave enough to try this.

Then, one year, Tom bought me a steam processor (not entirely a sap: he loves strawberry jam). It changed my life, making preserving ever so much easier. You put a few cups (not gallons) of water in the broad base of the pan, bring it to a boil, set the filled jars on its rack.

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Set the dome on top of the base, keep the heat high, and as soon as an 8-inch column of steam comes out of the vent holes on the side of the dome, count 15 minutes. You can just barely see the steam coming out, on the right of this photo:

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As you take out the jars and they cool, you can hear each lid going “clonk” as it creates the vacuum that seals the jam against decay.

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After 24 hours you tighten the lids, write the date on them, and – feeling like an intrepid and totally fulfilled pioneer woman putting up essential food for her family – tuck them in the pantry for a year’s worth of delicious eating.

And in July or August, you do it all again with peaches, except that they have pectin of their own and don’t need the commercial stuff. Then you also make some pineapple jam with the pectin you didn’t use for the strawberry jam. It’s crazy, maybe – but there’s something intensely satisfying about a pantry shelf lined with your own homemade goodies. (If I’ve really gone overboard, jam makes nice little hostess gifts.)

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