Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sublime strawberries: Two ways to preserve some of that goodness and beauty

I am a little out of practice with writing regularly. You work for years in a regular nine-to-five day job and fully plan to use your evenings wisely with creative pursuits like drawing, painting, and writing. But at the end of the day, you feel drained, barely able to get food on the table, dishes in the dishwasher, and the little guy to bed. Creativity is so far out of your grasp that you plunk down on the couch, throw on the tube, and stew in guilt: "I should be using my time better! If I was really committed, I would find the energy and the willpower." As time passes, your creative muscle starts to deteriorate a bit. To get it back into shape takes persistence and work, just like getting fit after years of mooing on the couch.

So, I haven't written for several days, which I feel guilty about. I have been cooking a lot, but I didn't get any pictures, and the stuff was small, and didn't I already write something about that...? The excuses and the fears pile up, effectively grinding momentum to a halt.

But I must force myself forward, get some writing down, take some photos, break out the charcoal and paper and draw. So, here are some thoughts about strawberries, which have dominated my kitchen for the last two weeks. The ubiquity of the strawberry can make you take it for granted. It shows up as an artificial flavor variety in neon-pink, crazy-quilt plastic packages at the convenience store. It's the little pop of color on top of that decadent chocolate dessert you really shouldn't have fallen for last night. They are available grossly oversized in every season at the grocery store. (That size? Not normal. Can you say octoploid?) So they somehow lose hold over your imagination. You don't get that excited about them.

Or do you? What a shame to let something so sweet and lovely slip into bland ubiquity. Especially when they can perfume a room or draw your eye on a cool spring morning, gleaming ruby red. When I was a kid, my mother never bought strawberries at the grocery store. One time, we were driving in Finland, on our way to visit my grandmother in Kokkola, my mother came to a screaming halt at the side of the road where a couple of people were selling strawberries out of the back of their car. She was so excited. To her this was a gift, a special moment in time. Perhaps the scarcity she lived with as a child (she was born during World War II, and food was hard to come by in Finland) had taught her the value of those sweet red jewels, early gifts of spring. In any case, we had to eat them at once, or they would lose their flavor she said. And so we did. Happily, we selected berry after berry from the box until they were gone. And then they were no more than a memory, but what a sweet and precious one.

It seems important to me to remember the value she placed on those berries every time I visit the farmer's market. Because eating in season is ephemeral; it changes from week to week. This week you are swamped with berries and asparagus, but next week they could be gone. So you grab everything you can, try and set by as much as you can because you don't know what you will find next week. This is both the joy and sometimes the sorrow of the farmer's market. I have many times come back to find the blueberries done for the season and kicking myself for having missed them.

So I have been trying my hardest to make the most of the strawberries by making saft (a Scandinavian fruit syrup you mix with water to make a refreshing drink) and jam. But I haven't made enough yet. My family already drank the saft, and I only got four jars of jam. So I hope there are still berries left at the market tomorrow. Both of the following recipes were adapted from Bonniers Stora Kokbok, which was my second cookbook--a gift from my mother that is completely beaten up. The spine is cracked to pieces, the book is falling apart, but I wouldn't give it up for the world. Part of the reason it is such a mess is because it was soaked through in a rainstorm during a motorcycle trip from Virginia to Colorado. But that may be a story for another day...

Strawberry Saft

Bring 3 deciliters of water to a boil in a big, nonreactive pot. Add 2 quarts of hulled, well-rinsed strawberries to the water (I am especially fond of the berries and fruits from Reid's Orchards. Their grapes look like little glass balls full of sunshine and taste as amazing. Absolutely gorgeous fruit.) Let the mass boil for about 10-15 minutes.

Line a colander with cheesecloth and raise it over a bowl. (I placed two chairs next to each other so that the colander hung down between them about half a foot over the bowl. You can find stands that will enable you to do the same, but the chairs work well.)

Pour the cooked strawberries into the colander and let the juice drip into the bowl for about an hour.

Measure the juice in the bowl. For every quart of juice, measure 6 deciliters of sugar. Bring the juice to boil and add the sugar. Let the sugar dissolve and the mixture cook for about 5 minutes. Skim the liquid. Then add the juice of one lemon (juice of limes will do in a pinch).

Then you can add it to clean, warm bottles and seal it to save for the winter. (We never get that far though; we end up devouring it in about a week.)

To serve, use 1 part saft to 4-5 parts water or seltzer.

Strawberry Jam Scented With Rosemary

2 quarts hulled, well-rinsed strawberries (let them run off for a few minutes on paper towels)
6 deciliters sugar
1 Tbsp dried rosemary
8 black peppercorns

Wrap the rosemary and the peppercorns into a tight little package with cheesecloth (the rosemary and the peppercorns should not be able to escape during cooking).

In a heavy pot, layer sugar and strawberries. Start and end with a layer of sugar. Let the mixture sit for at least an hour, you can go up to 24 hours.

Bring the mass in the pot very slowly to a boil. Let it simmer for an hour, skimming regularly. (Tips for skimming: (1) Get a skimmer, it makes a big difference and doesn't have to cost a lot. (2) Keep a container of cold water next to the pot. Dip the skimmer into the cold water before and after skimming. Replace water as desired.)

Take out the spice bag and discard it. Spoon the jam into warm, clean canning jars and process in a hot water bath for about 15 minutes. (If you've never done any canning before, I would definitely do a little research to learn some more tips and tricks. Because I am still a novice, I don't want to give you the wrong information.)

If, for some reason, your jam doesn't jell, don't despair. It will still make a delicious topping for pancakes (thanks to my friend Walter for the suggestion), or it will be amazing on ice cream. Now go enjoy those strawberries before they are gone!

Update: To make sure your jams and jellies are safe to eat, check the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

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