Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Strawberry dystopia

The way to eat the first strawberry is to put it into your cheek and then squeeze it slowly with the flat of your fist through your teeth. The berry is preferably hot from the sun; you would be, preferably, as innocent as a child, and it would become one of those memories that turn into the ribs and vertebrae of your future self. Of such memories are lives made.
Grandma had a job at Rudy Manufacturing in Dowagiac, Mom worked at Kaiser Fraser there, too, and Dad drove to Bendix in South Bend. It was just Grandpa and me and my little brother that summer, as well as the migrants who came up from Oklahoma or Texas or Arkansas to pick and pack strawberries in the field.
At noon Grandpa took us into the house and fed us lunch. The big brown plastic radio gave us reports of pork belly futures and Gabriel Heatter gave us news about Joseph McCarthy, the evil scourge who rolled through the country wrecking the lives of people he accused of being communists. “Pinko!” 
I prattled away until Grandpa sliced the air with his hand, his ear cocked to the news. “Sunnova...” he’d say.
What did we eat for those womanless lunches? Cole slaw and cold fried chicken? Perhaps we poured cream over cold, solidified, raisin-packed rice pudding? Maybe sandwiches of good white bread and leftover pot roast. Pickled beef tongue. Cold baked beans. I can’t remember a thing about those lunches except the mixture of radio politics and food. And maybe the slightly used look of the leftover pie. Rhubarb, mincemeat, cherry. Perhaps, in a fit of frivolity, Grandma would have made lemon meringue.
But I can feel the chill of those lunches, deprived of the energy and warmth of the feminine. Grandma backed down that deep driveway in the morning looking straight ahead. I waved from the sidelines, feeling small.
But everyone would be home for supper; and supper, when strawberries first came in, would be all about shortcake – big plates of hot baking powder biscuits, split, lavishly buttered, ladled with strawberries that had been sliced, not mashed, gritty with sugar, sweet thick cream ladled over all.
Now, what was the name of that  half-moon shaped, wooden-handled slicer?  I have it. I use it still! Of course – Mezzaluna! The berries are capped, tossed into a bowl, and then they’re sliced/chopped with that mezzaluna, sugar is added, and they macerate in their sugar/juices but keep some shape and texture. 

Whole families of “Okies” or “Arkies” would be present in the fields, the older sisters taking care of the babies in the shade of the tree-line. They’d come up to the pump in the dooryard to get a drink of cold water, one skinny hip stuck out with a baby on it. They’d take the tin ladle from the hook and hold it under the gush and drink from it, then offer it to me. I’d shake my head. No thanks.
“Ain’t got no germs,” they said.
“But I do,” I’d say. At night there’d be music faint in the distance where they were camping.
I found this recipe in a profile of a Scotsman called Jeremy Lee in an article in the magazine Saveur from July of 2006. In spite of it’s persnicketyness it has become a favorite. You need to toast breadcrumbs before you start, and let them cool, and then you have to refrigerate the dough for 8 hours, but these little cracker/cakes are so good – delicate and interesting – that you might want to bite the bullet.
Use them for shortcake, or for scones.
Scots Shortcake
  • 12 tablespoons butter, softened (That’s a stick and a half, OR 6 ounces, OR ¾ cup)
  • 1⁄3 cup superfine sugar (I process regular granulated sugar in the food processor)
  • Finely grated zest of one small orange (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3⁄4 cup whole unblanched almonds, ground
  • 2⁄3 cup toasted white bread crumbs
1. Put butter and 1⁄3 cup of the sugar into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until pale and well combined, about 1 1⁄2 minutes. Add orange zest and beat again until just combined, about 15 seconds. Add flour, almonds, and bread crumbs and beat again until a soft dough forms, about 1 minute.
2. Transfer dough to a piece of plastic wrap and roll up, twisting both ends tightly as if it were a piece of candy, to form a 3"-wide log. Refrigerate dough for 8 hours or overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 300°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Unroll dough, discarding plastic wrap, and cut log crosswise into sixteen 1⁄4"-thick slices. Arrange slices on baking sheets in a single layer, leaving them spaced at least 1" apart. Bake until just golden and slightly puffed, about 20 minutes. Transfer shortcakes to a wire rack and let cool.
Of course, mound with sweetened berries and whipped cream.
Or, go ahead and make James Beard’s utterly sumptuous (and simple)  Cream Biscuits.
We have at least two vendors – Radical Roots and Evening Song – offering broccoli raab at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, for which I’m grateful. It’s one of my favorite vegges. This is the way I wrote about preparing it several times before:
And the way you achieve that flavor and texture is to toss the raab into boiling salted water and bring it just back to boiling, hold it there maybe a second more, then drain it. In the meantime you’ve warmed about a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a sauté pan with a finely chopped clove of garlic. When the raab is drained, and the garlic has had time to flavor the olive oil without turning a bit brown, turn the heat to high under the pan, and when the oil is hot (don’t let that garlic turn) throw in the raab and shake, rattle and roll until the raab is hot, has cooked a couple minutes more and is, my goodness, coated with the oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste, then a teaspoon or so of hot pepper flakes, and there we go! Serve it warm or even cold. Put it in a sandwich. Al Ducci’s makes a raab sandwich on their little flatbreads that are split in half, with Al Sheps’ fresh mozzarella and lots of that garlic olive oil. It is a treat!

I do miss asparagus at the Farmers’ Market. Not ONE farmer offers it. Why? Well, I guess it’s labor intensive (weeding), and difficult to grow organically. But I think that organic asparagus must’ve been the norm before the second world war created a glut of nitrates to make chemical fertilizer. Since I shop mostly at the Co-op and Farmers’ Market I’m in danger of forgetting there IS an asparagus season. Help!
Update: After this column appeared in the Herald yesterday several people emailed to tell me that Williams' Farm just north of Rutland sells asparagus -- not organic, but delicious. Of course I knew that, I just seldom get north of town, and I prefer organic. Nevertheless, I drove out and scored a couple of pounds of beautiful asparagus. I grilled half of it last night and I'm eating the rest for breakfast.
And finally, a suggestion for cheesemakers and sellers:  It seems to be the practice to fold the wrapping around the cheese and gather it in the center, then plop a label over the gathering. Which means that I have to destroy the label when I open the cheese to eat it. I don’t want to destroy that label. You’re proud of it yet you make me destroy it. There should be the top of the cheese – with the label – and the bottom of the cheese with the fastening. Thank you.
It’s that fast-growing-green-grass time of year, when the perky and winter-weary little Jerseys are out there  under the sun eating it and turning it into good milk and cream. Chickens are scampering and scratching around in it for grubs and seeds to make good flesh and eggs. So if you’re a milk drinker or egg eater now’s the time those items are going to be the tastiest AND healthiest they get.  Get them while you can.

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