Strawberry Season

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.

strawberry mint canapé eaten in situ, dirty hands and all

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.

Grand Marnier: blended cognacs with orange essence

Speaking of tradition, it’s as good as written law around here that when there are fresh, local strawberries on hand there must also be strawberry shortcake. So, we had back to back shortcake. The second time ’round though I needed it to be an easily transported dessert to bring to a party. Cake form seemed like the perfect way to go, all assembled and easy to head out with. Playing on the orange tones of my first orange-rosemary shortcake, I incorporated some Grand Marnier to lend a sweet citrus flavor to the whipped cream. Also, instead of a plain vanilla bean cake, I made a rustic cornmeal cake to add pleasant texture and sweetness from the fresh milled corn.

cornmeal cake with Grand Marnier vegan whipped cream and fresh berries

One note though, as pretty as it is to have the green tops on the strawberries topping this cake, it’s a total suckers move and I implore you to resist it! I can’t tell you how many ways in which I should have known better, but the beauty of the berries with the tops still on conspired to drag me down as I opted, thoughtlessly, for aesthetics over eating. A choice that meant I later had to sit, shamefaced, as my friends picked berries out of the mess of whipped cream to remove the tops, which of course they couldn’t enjoyably eat. Sigh.

strawberry rhubarb pie with cornmeal pâte sucréeI tried to make it up to them though with my favorite pie, strawberry rhubarb. Following the thought about cornmeal and strawberries, which worked so well in the cornmeal shortcake, I made a tender pâte sucrée with cornmeal and coconut oil instead of margarine or oil. The coconut was a very mild flavor influence on the end result and worked surprisingly well in the crust which was wonderfully flaky, light and tenderly sweet against the tart fruit filling.

fresh strawberry jam filled rambutan mochi with Thai basil sauce and strawberry powder

Last year I served my strawberry rhubarb pie with basil ice cream, but this year my basil is not incredibly bountiful. My lemon verbena could swallow up the yard, but the basil is sort of a no-go. It’s sad. There is enough to work smaller projects with though, so I made a dessert that caught my eye in Johnny Iuzzini’s Dessert FourPlay a couple months ago. In the original version, Iuzzini fills strawberry mochi with strawberry rhubarb compote and serves it with basil fluid gel. I took some liberties to make the dessert a little faster to assemble and different in flavor, pairing my fresh strawberry jam filling with a freeze-dried rambutan mochi (reasoning that if I find an affinity between strawberries and lychees, rambutans would work as well) and serving it with Thai basil sauce. My mochi technique could use some work (I blame the leakage on my imperfect motor control with a hand still swollen from carpal tunnel release surgery) but overall, I adored this light little dessert and its intriguing Southeast Asian flavors.

chocolate spiced baby banana pudding with strawberries

A more straightforward, classic pairing between strawberries and chocolate was something I noticed had fallen by the wayside this season. I guess I’ve been taking my chocolate pretty straight these days and have been in a particular rut with the super dry, dark and lovely 84% Theo single origin bar from Ghana. So good. But I digress. Feeling that these amazing strawberries could make chocolate even more magical, I whipped up a very random pudding of organic baby bananas, dark chocolate, anise, chilies, cinnamon, nutmeg and espresso salt, sweetened with date syrup and topped with fresh berries. It was meant as a quick treat of no consequence but was so good, I’m pledged to make it again and actually write down every element of the recipe since several friends have proclaimed it’s one of the best things ever, period.

breakfast with berries and nibs

After finally getting my strawberry and chocolate fix, I realized that I’d sort of been enjoying the two together all along in my breakfast bowl. Homemade cocoa nib granola with fresh berries isn’t quite chocolate dipped strawberries, but it’s more than satisfying at seven am.

almond crust mini tarts with fresh fruit, nibs and lemon verbena

Thinking about how nicely nibs complemented strawberries, I sprinkled a few Taza chocolate covered nibs into my mini tarts. They provided a nice bittersweet crunch against the fruit and buttery almond crust.

almond strawberry cheesecake
Almonds are a natural complement to strawberries. Their rich sweetness and lightly bitter edge are perfect against tart berry notes. And there’s a reason why strawberry cheesecake is so popular; sweet tangy cheese has its richness both cut slightly and complemented by each bite of berry. So, an almond crusted and amaretto spiked cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries glazed with hot strawberry syrup and sprinkled with almond slices seemed like just the thing.

whole wheat English muffin with farmer’s cheese and strawberry rhubarb jam

I’ve had a lot of semi-successful vegan cheese-ish substances around lately as I’ve been experimenting to find one that really suits me. None of them are perfect, but with a good amount of fiddling, they’ve all turned into tasty additions to desserts and ice cream bases. The mixture that I turned into cheesecake was also spun off into a nice mellow farmer’s cheese that went wonderfully with fresh strawberry rhubarb jam (again from the Joy of Jams, but with much less sugar than called for).

bagels fresh out of the oven

In fact, I made several jams from the new book: plain strawberry, strawberry rhubarb and strawberry kiwi. With such deliciously fresh tasting jams are hanging around the house, it seemed pretty much obvious that I needed to make a delicious delivery mechanism for them. So when King Aurthur flour had a free-shipping deal, I refilled my stock of organic high gluten flour and made a batch of bagels from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, some coated into sesame seeds and some streaked with pasilla chili powder and topped with chili lime Hawaiian sea salt.

brunch at Dara’s with everyone’s delicious contributions: homemade bagels and jam, fennel seitan, chicory in tahini garlic sauce, roasted potatoes, beet orzo and melon with mint
Toasted and spread equally with fresh made jam and strawberry cream cheese, these were a delicious promise that the joy of strawberries in season can last as long as the jars of jam do, even if we’ve only got another week or two to enjoy them fresh.

Reconsidering the Radish

One of my many new undertakings this busy season was a full fledged garden. Though I’d lived in a rural area with a fair bit of small-scale farming and gardening all around, and though I’d been vegan and pretty political about my food for years before the day that a friend walked me through the packed and productive urban garden of a punk house in Oakland, I never really got the whys and wherefores of growing your own food. It dawned on me that day, but it’s take a good decade to implement.

Sure, there have been years of containers with variously successful peppers, tomatoes, herbs and even an ill-advised experience with sweet potatoes, but I’d never been able to create a garden that could hope to do much more than garnish a plate. So, when a friend offered up his hard-won plot to me for the season, I took it on in a blink. And though I came into it with a righteous do-it-my-own-self streak–pouring over heirloom and organic seed catalogs, starting seeds in March and tending them with careful dreams of high-yields and liberal doses of compost tea–I had to bow to this friend’s offer to help me plant seedlings and sow seeds in the early summer. As he ripped open his packet of lettuce seed, I quietly patted my own tom thumb lettuce seeds, whispering to them, “later, later.” And when his pedigree-less beet seeds were sown, I thought of the room that my unfortunately named, but reportedly delicious, Crapaudine beets would have to sacrifice, but still I said nothing. When he got to the radishes though, well, even in friendships, there is a line, and for me, radishes are sown on the other side of it.

There are very few vegetables that I cannot respect and enjoy eating at least somewhat, but radishes have never moved me in a positive way. Here and there I have nothing specific against a radish or two in salad, or a little daikon in miso or dashi–sure, rock it out, but to grow a radish? To take valuable space away from other vegetables? No way. Not on my plot. “Hey, whoa, ok, let’s take it easy. Don’t do anything rash now. Can we talk about this?” I begged as his hand poised to shake a full packet of seeds out into a beautiful patch of perfectly turned soil. “What?” he asked, shaking the seeds out as he spoke and I cringed. “Radishes are great, and they grow really well.” And it was done. The radishes were planted and what could I say?

One of many salads from my garden: featuring radish, nasturtium and tahini dressing

In the months that followed, I thought of many things I could have said, reoccurring thread concerning the fact that this friend who thought radishes so great was going to be away for the entire summer and not eat a single one, among the most prominent. Whatever I thought about the first part of his radish claim though, the second bit was dead on. Radishes grow really well. Really well.

At first their productivity was simply alarming. I was overrun with a vegetable that I didn’t even like and couldn’t really think of what to do with. Then, strangely, it was compelling. Unsure quite how it happened, I found myself feeling tenderly toward the radishes. They were kind of miraculous, shooting up volumes of spiky greens and crowning from the soil with bright red heads from out of nowhere. It was the magic of the garden. Magically, they also seemed to reproduce in split second intervals. I would pull up one and notice in the days after, a new little shoot scrambling to fill up the recently vacated one. Probably this was due more to the great quantity of seeds my friend dumped on the ground, but it felt magical and my respect for the radishes went from grudging to whole-hearted, even if they were driving me a little crazy.

Lemon Pepper Roasted Radishes

Why didn’t I just dispose of the radishes, clear out the patch, leave them to the slugs? Why did I tend them, pick them, prepare them when still they ranked somewhere around durian and dental appointments in my book? Again, it was the magic of the garden. The radishes started to seem like a proverb, a truth I should come to see, a lesson to learn–something about making peace with what’s there in front of you and making the best of it. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s adulthood, but the radishes solidified a sense for me that nothing should be easy come, easy go. There’s something relevant in the radish.

Radish greens soup, not recommended
So, I dutifully ate radishes. Everyday, I put radishes in my salads. Tiring of that, I roasted them with lemon juice, olive oil and pepper, which is pretty darn good. Getting generous, I started using the greens too. I made a terrible soup, tried to sneak a handful into sauteed greens here and there, tentatively tried them in a salad, offered them to my guinea pigs and finally decided that they made fine compost. In life, you can only do your best.

Garden Giardiniera: pickled cauliflower, cucumber,
green tomato, hatch chili, carrot and radish

What seemed like virtue in making use of all of the radishes soon faded into simple fact. This is what we do. Food grows, we eat it or store it and eat it later, then it grows again and we do the same. I wasn’t sure I could be more respectful of my food or more seasonally aware, but in trying to fill my days only with food from the garden and CSA farm-share or farmer’s market, I got past the highlights: tomatoes, corn, peaches, apples, squash and got into everything–were these the last borlotti beans? The first russet apples? Are the radishes done for the season?

Canned Giardiniera

A natural extension of gardening is canning and the radishes were first to prompt me in this direction as I put up jars of spicy Giardiniera, an Italian mixed vegetable pickle. It’s all part of the effort to preserve that moment, even into darkest winter, when you pulled vegetables out of soft, warm earth. Even I will enjoy those radishes then, if not as much as the grapes from the arbor preserved in jams and jellies or the tomatoes in the sauce that will speak to all the best of August, but still. I grew them, saved them, will eat them, will be (if only moderately) nourished by something I had complete control over every step of the way.

Left to right: watermelon radish, black radish

I knew that things had changed between me and radishes forever when last week at the farmer’s market, I exclaimed over a striking black root vegetable. It was dark as Mordor and deeply, finely textured as an elephant. I wanted it before I knew what it was, and it was, of course, a radish. Next to it was another small basket of dingy pink radishes. I bought both.

I had been weeks since I had a radish, and after months of them, where once I would have simply been glad of a reprieve, I was nostalgic and they, beautiful. So there it is, peace with radishes and a deeply felt experience as a grower. For next year, I have saved the seeds of these radishes and will plant them–a few of them– without holding a single grudge.

I know it must seem like bad form to come back from an unintentionally long blogging hiatus with an all radish review, but they have been on my mind. Rest assured that there are desserts and treats a plenty in the future. Thanks for your patience and kind words while I’ve been away. I really appreciate them and am looking forward to repaying you in posts that won’t even mention the word “radish.”

Spicy Chocolate Pumpkin Cake Recipe

While my circle is generally up for anything culinarily speaking, as a group they have limited tolerance for messing around with the classics at Thanksgiving. Can I serve vegan kielbasa and sauerkraut, sweet potato maki or coconut curry laksa for Christmas? Sure, no fuss. But just see the dangerous flash in their eyes if I start messing around with Thanksgiving fare. I am too attached to life and limb to even suggest alternative proposals to mashed potatoes and copious piles of stuffing. When it comes to pumpkin pie though, my feet invariably drag.

I’ve put chai in pumpkin pie, layered it with praline pecans, swirled cocoa nib cream through it, used different kinds of pumpkin, various forms of crust, but one thing I’ve never done is love pumpkin pie. It’s not that I don’t appreciate pumpkin, I do. We harvested five beautiful little sugar pumpkins last week and have been enjoying them ever since in a variety of dishes and desserts. But the way I like it best will never be in pie. My preference lies with cake–really truly pumpkiny, densely fudgey, full of bitter fruit chocolate flavor and piled with perfectly seasonal spices. It’s so good, it’s worth enduring the wrath of my friends missing their traditional pumpkin pie. Besides, after one bite, I find the anger fades from a roar to a purr of chocolately pumpkin contentment.

I first made this cake last year for Thanksgiving and it already feels like a classic for our Thanksgiving table. If you can’t give up the pie, well, I’m sure it would go well alongside some straight-up pumpkin too. Anyway, Thanksgiving is nothing if not an opportunity to legitimize the serving and consumption of multiple desserts.

Spiced Chocolate Pumpkin Fudge Cake with Whipped Ganache

Makes one 8” cake.

Ingredients::

3 oz chopped dark chocolate
¾ cup pumpkin purée, fresh or canned
½ cup water
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
¼ cup canola oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup cocoa powder
1 cup all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon toasted green anise, ground
⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Fresh ground spices yield the best, freshest , most potent flavor.

Prepare::

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare an 8” cake pan with parchment in the bottom and oiled sides. Over a saucepan of boiling water in a bowl or in a microwave, working in 30 second increments, melt chocolate.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, water, vinegar, sugar, vanilla, oil and sea salt.

In a large bowl, sift together the cocoa powder, flour, baking soda and baking powder. Add in spices and whisk to combine.

Pour liquid into dry mixture while whisking until combined in a smooth batter. Pour in melted chocolate and whisk well to combine. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and continue cooling. Frost with whipped ganache.

Whipped Ganache

Feel free to leave out the margarine if you prefer. It will be a firmer and dryer ganache and will want a pinch of salt if omitted. If needed, soften with a little additional non-dairy milk and give gloss with agave.

Ingredients::

8 oz. chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup non-dairy milk
½ cup non-hydrogenated Earth Balance buttery stick, room temperature
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Prepare::

Place chocolate in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.

In a small saucepan or in the microwave, heat non-dairy milk until just boiling. Pour over the chocolate and let stand 1 minute, then begin to whisk slowly. Increase speed to medium, adding Earth Balance, agave and vanilla. Beat about 3 minutes or until smooth and thick, but still glossy and light.