Fresh strawberries bring a needed taste of summer to a long winter, with a spicy, versatile salsa and a simply stellar dessert. Recipes below.
An update: In writing this post, I started to talk about food and carbon footprints, then decided to just celebrate strawberries in winter. Reader T.W. Barritt gave me a gentle nudge to reconsider the issue. So I’ve added an update at the end of the post. Probably opening a real can of worms here, but what can you do?
One morning recently I stopped at the grocery store on the way to work to pick up a couple of things for lunch. On my way through the produce section, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the scent of strawberries. It was the smell of summer. And with the winter we’ve been having in Chicago this year—it has snowed 35 days so far, some kind of record—summer is what I dearly needed to smell. And to taste.
Granted, you can often find at least a few strawberries in the store, even in winter. Often, though, they’re blond and bland. Or else they cost the Earth—this time of year, five bucks a pound is not out of the question. But this was a big, generous display of one-pound, clear plastic boxes, stacked high and smelling like a hot August day. And every bit as beautiful as the red, ripe berries themselves was a sign saying $1.99.
I took my time at the display, carefully picking a box that had the reddest, most beautiful berries without the telltale smooshed ones in the bottom that said this batch was past just ripe. At the checkout, the cashier suddenly picked up the box of strawberries and held it near her face, eyes closed, inhaling deeply, a startlingly intimate act with someone else’s purchase. But such was the power of the smell of those luscious berries on a winter morning.
The scent continued to exert its power, filling my office as I tried to concentrate on my work. By lunch, I had scarfed down half a dozen of these fat, juicy beauties, and over lunch, I hunted online for recipes to make the most of the rest of the strawberries, assuming they made it home.
What I found made the most of them indeed—a light, sophisticated dessert with exactly four ingredients. If you’re not ready for dessert yet, scroll on down to a versatile spicy fruit salsa that goes with salmon, chicken, chops and more.
Wine, lemon juice, sugar and strawberries. It can’t get much simpler than that, can it? The result is wonderfully elegant, though, dessert all grown up. It’s a nice, light finish to a meal too—no heavy creams or chocolates. It’s simple enough for every day, but impressive enough to hold its own at the fanciest of dinner parties. Because it contains wine, though, if any of your guests are children or teetotalers, serve them strawberries tossed ahead of time with sugar and a little lemon juice. This recipe was adapted from one found in Gourmet magazine.
Strawberries & Red Wine
Makes 4 servings
2 cups good quality, fruit-forward red wine [but not sweet—see Kitchen Notes]
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
scant 1/2 cup sugar
1 pound strawberries [2 pints], trimmed, and halved
Mix wine, lemon juice, and sugar in a bowl, stirring until most of sugar is dissolved. Stir in strawberries and let steep at room temperature 1 hour, then chill until cold, up to 1 hour but no longer. The strawberries will soften as they soak; they’ll become too soft if they steep for more than 2 hours.
Serve berries in small bowls or glasses [small martini glasses would be amazing] with some of their juices. You won’t use most of the wine when you serve, just enough to form a nice, spoonable pool in each serving—its primary role is as marinade.
Choosing the wine. You don’t necessarily need an expensive wine, but with it and the strawberries being the stars of this elegant little show, it must be good. Much maligned Merlots can be a good choice—just make sure you get one with a big fruit flavor to it. I used a 2005 Merlot from Snoqualmie Vineyards, in Washington state, picked up at Trader Joe’s for about eight bucks. Do NOT use a sweet or dessert wine—the results will taste like Kool-Aid.
Strawberry Seduction. Mike over at Mike’s Table is putting together an interesting round-up of recipes from various bloggers featuring this fabulous berry. I’m sure there will be cakes and pastries galore. So how could I not add this grown-up dessert to the mix. Be sure to check in at Mike’s for the seductive round-up.
Sweet and savory—always a nice combo. Strawberries take a starring role in a colorful mango salsa that gives a summery, flavorful kick to the Spicy Salmon shown above. It also works with grilled chicken and pairs particularly nicely with pork chops, pan-seared, grilled or otherwise.
Chili powder gives the salsa a lively edge with a hint of heat, and the green onion balances the sweetness of the fruit, giving it more complexity.
Spicy Mango Salsa
1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into cubes
fresh strawberries, sliced—roughly equal to the amount of mango
1/4 cup sliced green onions, green tops only
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
Combine all the ingredients for the salsa in a medium bowl. Set aside while you prepare the meat or fish.
Update: “Who you callin’ Big Foot?” Measuring the carbon footprint of the food we eat.
As I was preparing this post, Marion showed me a fascinating article in the February 25th issue of the New Yorker, “Big Foot: In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science.” In it, author Michael Specter says that, “…food carries enormous symbolic power, so the concept of ‘food miles’—the distance a product travels from the farm to your home—is often used as a kind of shorthand to talk about climate change in general.” But, he goes on to point out, the carbon impact of food is far more complex than that. Transportation is only one factor and not always the most important one.
Adrian Williams, an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University in England, has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. He goes so far as to say that, “People should stop talking about food miles. It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging and simplistic. It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather or even the season.” He cites a study, for instance, that shows that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped by boat to England produced about a fourth of the carbon dioxide emissions—due in part to the fact that New Zealand pastures need far less fertilizer than most grazing land in Britain [or in many parts of the United States, for that matter]. Williams concludes that, “Everyone always wants to make ethical choices about the food they eat and the things they buy. And they should. It’s just that what seems obvious often is not. And we need to make sure people understand that before they make decisions on how they ought to live.”
The issue of carbon impact is much larger than the production and consumption of food, of course. The article covers it all and puts forth some interesting solutions.
From a practical point of view, though, here in the frozen Midwest, eating things in season would pretty much relegate us to subsisting on potatoes, turnips and cabbages stored in the root cellars very few of us have anymore. And even among more climate-fortunate types, few have the motivation and skills of, say, Christina over at A Thinking Stomach, who grows much of her own produce year ’round.
I’m happy to support our fledgling farmers markets here in Chicago when they’re in business. But few cities offer markets all year long. And checking even New York’s vaunted Greenmarket’s current offerings, the pickings are pretty slim right now. In the meantime, we all have to eat.
So sure, think about your carbon footprint—we all need to. But don’t just think about it in the kitchen. Think about what you drive—and whether you even need to drive. Think about recycling and using canvas totes when you shop. Think about the energy you use. And most of all, don’t think you have all the facts. None of us does, not even Mr. Gore. Global warming is a bigger issue than we can possibly comprehend right now—more complex too. And while our personal choices will all have an impact, the heavy lifting on this issue needs to happen in business and in government—locally, nationally and globally.
Wow. All of that from a box of strawberries.
Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 2/27/2008
Tag, I’m it. Seven things about me. Warda over at 64 sq ft kitchen has tagged me for a meme. Find out what snails, Stonehenge and Graceland have to do with my life, at WTF? Random food for thought.
ReBirth Brass Band: First-rate Second Line. New Orleans celebrates just about any event with a parade, from Mardi Gras to funerals. And parades mean great music for the Second Liners who dance along behind, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?