Strawberries: Tasting summer in winter

by Terry B on February 27, 2008

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.

Kitchen Notes

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
Serves 2

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?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types February 27, 2008 at 12:22 pm

This is a lovely respite from winter, although we have been fortunate to have far less snow in NY. Some people wonder if we should be eating strawberries “out of season” but you make a good case that it is a wonderful way to chase away the winter blues, and isn’t food supposed to be about pleasure regardless of the season? I’m a big fan of strawberries with balsamic vinegar.

Mike of Mike's Table February 27, 2008 at 1:02 pm

The wine/strawberry combo sounds like a tasty mix. Granted its only 8 am here, but now you’ve got me thinking sangria…and yea, the checkout counter sniffer seems just a bit bizarre.

And I guess its a bit more wintery up by you, but down here in FL, strawberry season is actually just about to hit its peak (hooray for roadside farmstands!) so for what its worth, you’re not terribly out of season. 😉

Patricia Scarpin February 27, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I have never tried strawberries in savory dishes, Terry, and after watching last Saturday’s “Jamie at home” (yes, I’m addicted to the show) and seeing your recipe I think I should give it a go.

Terry B February 27, 2008 at 7:55 pm

T.W.—I had considered discussing the whole carbon footprint issue of eating foods “out of season.” Thanks for the nudge to do so.

Mike—Once I got over the momentary shock of the cashier sniffing my strawberries, we went on to have a nice conversation about the joys of this lovely fruit in winter.

Patricia—Do give it a go! The combination of sweet and savory is quite amazing on the tastebuds.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) February 28, 2008 at 4:05 am

Like TW, I’m a strawberries-in-balsamic fan, so I’m very excited to try your variation on that theme. And on the theme of carbon footprints and food, I think increased awareness is a good place to start. Whenever there is local produce available in our area, I try to mention that, and pass along farmers’ names, to the produce manager in our town’s supermarket. If a few more people in town did that, the market would change its buying patterns. We have to start somewhere. Now, if only I could get the 20 miles to the market without my car…

Terry B February 28, 2008 at 4:24 am

Lydia—And I’m going to have to try the balsamic treatment. Regarding local produce [and meat, for that matter], we can’t always assume that it was grown greener—many small farmers use the same fertilizers and pesticides the big boys do. Happily, though, more and more of them are understanding that the way to compete with industrial farming is by going organic. Or heritage. Or all of the above. And while this can’t be translated to a big enough scale to feed everyone [there are more of us to feed every day and far fewer farmers to do it than ever], supporting greener practices will indeed create market demand and drive it throughout all levels of food production.

Do read the New Yorker article. It illustrates how production methods can often outweigh transportation in determining the true carbon footprint of foods.

Mimi February 29, 2008 at 2:05 am

You’ve given us food for thought as well as some tempting ideas for spring, TerryB. I’m trying to reduce our carbon footprint at the office, and it is an uphill battle.

Aimee February 29, 2008 at 2:20 am

Sometimes our tastebuds and salivatory glands just get the better of us, no matter how eco-friendly we are. We’re human.

Enjoy your strawberries–your dishes look fantastic.

ann February 29, 2008 at 1:06 pm

I think there’s a necessary balance needed in thinking about these things. Personally I like variety and the planet, and often in winter, my stomach beats my reasoning to a pulp and I, like you Terry, indulge in some far-flung treats. I refuse to feel guilty about.

My friend got the uber-cool “Undercover Economist” to write this piece for him that explores this very subject. It’s a good read and a nice counterpoint to the New Yorker piece.

Toni February 29, 2008 at 7:02 pm

I read the article and loved it — it’s a major thought-provoker, for sure. And it’s true – it’s about how we live our lives. But as Ann points out, when it comes to making choices, we tend to choose what draws us – sometimes insanely – to it. Like the smell of ripe strawberries in the winter.

And speaking of strawberries, I love the salsa! A little sweet, a little spicy — Oh yes! That will suck me in every time.

Terry B March 2, 2008 at 7:27 am

Mimi—We certainly all need to be aware of what we can do to reduce energy consumption and our carbon foot prints on a personal level, but as the New Yorker article emphatically shows, the effect these personal changes would have, even if we all adopted them, is a drop in the bucket compared to what substantial changes made by big business and governments would have. In fact, perhaps the most impact our personal actions would have would be to convince business and government that we’re serious about these issues.

Aimee—Thanks! And I think if you read the New Yorker article, and perhaps even more so, the excellent article at Forbes.com that Ann provided the link to [right below your comment]; the Forbes piece focuses specifically on the issue of food and the fallacy that local always means lower carbon impact.

Ann—Thanks for the very cool article! It offers some smart perspective on the issue.

Toni—One thing that sticks in my craw is how many locavores drive their SUVs to the local produce stand and smugly talk about food miles. Excuse me, but if you drive an SUV, you are not allowed to use the term “carbon footprint” except as part of an apology.

Christina March 4, 2008 at 4:35 am

Oh wow, I’m so all over the salsa with mangos and strawberries. That sounds fantastic–I love mango with chili y limon, and this takes it just a smidgin further. Yum.

Of course you bought strawberries. I can completely understand the need to. I’m not going to stop buying bananas even though I can’t find a local source. The actions we make are meaningful, and since each person serves as a model of some sort to others, even if the masses don’t make as much impact as changes within the corporate structures of the world, we’re still changing the future of the world and the way it is cared for. However, occasionally, one must buy strawberries in February. Sometimes I have to buy French cheese. Sometimes my fiance has to have German beer. The fact that we make these decisions consciously, knowing that these purchases have consequences, is what is important here.

In fact, I think that point is so much of what many of the of the problems we face today boils down to: we live in such an immediate-gratification world that we forget that each action leads to a result somewhere.

I wish more people stopped and thought, just as you do here. Great post.

Susan from Food Blogga May 16, 2008 at 11:43 pm

Hey Terry,

I included these simply chic strawberries in wine in a round-up I wrote for Foodie View:
http://www.foodieview.com/blog/2008/05/11/the-sweetness-of-summer-strawberries-2/

Have a fabulous weekend!

-Susan

Terry B May 17, 2008 at 5:24 am

I saw that, Susan. Thanks so much!

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