Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Strawberry fields forever



The Wimbledon tennis tournament started, and you know what that means!?! It's time for strawberries and cream! Yes, the English are funny that way: each sporting event is closely associated with some tradition or other (Royal Ascot and pretty hats, football and hooligans...), and it so happens that Wimbledon has strawberries and cream. And who can complain about that?

There is something inherently divine about strawbs and cream: the richness of the cream (not whipped, though you can go that way if you prefer) is perfectly balanced by the sweet tartness of perfectly ripe berries. If you are counting calories, then you can used evaporated milk (unsweetened, condensed milk), it doesn't quite have the same flavour, but the texture is similar, there is less fat, and it is less expensive than cream. Whatever you do, do not attempt with imported rocks trying to pass off as strawberries.

You might have noticed that the strawberry season has lengthened somewhat over the years. When I was a kid, we could only gorge ourselves on strawberries from mid-June to mid-July. When we were fed up, my mother made jam for the winter from the berries we had picked ourselves. Quebec and Ontario strawberries are now available from late May to September, and sometimes October if autumn is mild.

No, the strawberries are not genetically modified, at least not in the sense you are thinking. They're new varieties, some are hybrids, others are rediscovered older cultivars, all produce fruits at different periods of the summer, so it appears as though there is one continuous season. When I lived in Europe, each variety was named, and everyone celebrated their local berry, here however, unless you are buying directly from the farmer, you are not likely to find out the strawberry's real name. 'Tis a bit of a pity since each variety does taste slightly different from the next, though I suppose it's not the end of the world since they are all very tasty when fully ripe.

You're not likely to find giant golf balls amongst the locally produced berries -whether local for you is Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, New York or even California (a big exporter of strawberry shaped golf balls)- because your local berry will be grown under 'normal' conditions, namely out in the open at the mercy of Mother Nature. Those golf balls found in PET packs are pumped with water and fertilisers so that they swell up to gargantuan proportions, but they are picked unripe in order to support the wear and tear of transportation. Rarely very tasty, it makes me wonder why anyone bothers buying them. Seriously. I don't even understand why we use them in restaurants: there are other ways to garnish a dessert, and there are other fruits available the rest of the year, so why eat strawberries that don't taste like strawberries?

At this period in the season, you will want to enjoy your strawberries as is. Or just barely garnished with some cream, ice cream, crumbled shortbread... aaahhh, the list is endless! Anyway, you get the point. But, you might remember that rhubarb is still in season for a little while yet, so you'll want to have some rhubarb compote and strawberries! My mother used to cook the strawberries with the rhubarb, but I find it much better when you cook the rhubarb on its own, and smother the berries once the compote has cooled down. Or better yet, help yourself to some luscious vanilla ice cream, cover with halved strawberries, sprinkle some crushed shortbread cookies or crumble mix, and smother with warm rhubarb...........

If plain strawberries start to sound blah, you have a plethora of more complex treats to feast on: strawberry shortcakes; summer pudding; Eton Mess; tarts....


Strawberry Shortcake
This recipe is adapted from the May 1990 issue of HomeMaker's. It is the best shortcake recipe I've yet to make.
Serves 6


Strawberries, as many as you like
2c/260g all-purpose flour
2Tbs/30g sugar
4tsp/20g baking powder
¼c +2Tbs/125g cold butter
1 lemon zest
²/³c /165g milk
Whipped cream (the real stuff, please)

-Hull and cut strawberries in half. Set aside. The strawberries should render some juice on their own, but you can always sprinkle with some sugar if you want to speed the process.
-Sift together flour, sugar, and baking powder.
-Cut in butter until the mix resembles coarse meal.
-Rapidly fold in all the milk until you obtain a soft, slightly sticky dough. If it is too soft to handle, let dough rest in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes.
-Turn out the dough on a floured surface, and roll out to ¾" (2cm) thickness. Cut out with a glass or large, round cookie cutter.
-Preheat oven to 425'F (220'C). Place rounds on an ungreased sheet, and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until light golden.
-Let cool slightly before splitting in two. Spoon strawberries over bottom halves. Top with whipped cream, and place the remaining biscuit halves on top.
Serve immediately.

By the time you tire of all those strawberries -if that is ever possible- you will have a whole slew of other berries to choose from: unripe gooseberries for jam will be hitting the market in July; raspberries will make an appearance by mid-July; highbush blueberries (the big ones) should show up in late July; then you'll have the ripe gooseberries (good for eating out of hand, but not so much for jams and jellies) and the multi-coloured currants. And by August, you will have the crème de la crème: lowbush blueberries, aka wild blueberries!

Bon app'!

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