Early apples, left to right. Back row: Dutchess of Oldenburg, Wealthy. Second row: Milton, Gravenstein (2), Charette. Third row: Hazen, Early Russet. Little guys: Whitney
I don’t usually get around to issuing one of these alerts until the other end of the season, when it’s more like “last chance” than “get ready.” Two reasons:
1. My interest in apples is very small when there’s still a chance that a peach might be found. (I don’t want to hear about broccoli while there are still tomatoes, either).
2. Although some of the most famous and best loved heirlooms are early ripeners like Yellow Transparent and Chenango Strawberry, they aren’t, as a group, my favorites. Too sweet and too soft.
But this year I’m on the bandwagon right near the start of the parade, because the first batch from my heirloom apple CSA has arrived, and – are we surprised? Well, yes, mildly – a couple of them are delicious.
Would be me; thinking I could just make some of this classic English dessert, put up the recipe and move on to something gardenly like breeding peonies, growing great basil or one of the many other topics on the tip of my desktop.
Reading up on gooseberry fool – don’t laugh; it turns out to be a much explored subject* – led me into a briar patch of nursery catalogs, from which I have only recently emerged.
Two ways of serving Gooseberry Fool.
Oh dear, HOW has the time passed so quickly (as if gardeners didn’t know). I have now planted 6 kinds of peas, multititudinous onions and leeks, beets and lettuces and other comestibles galore, as well as the first flowers. Also pruned and deadheaded and mowed and edged and…
Result: blog silence. And here it is time for the next spring fling recipe swap.
If asparagus comes, can rhubarb be far behind?
This time it’s rhubarb, about which I have had a lot to say over the years on account of because I love it. Please use the search to find everything or go directly to the Rhubarb Custard Pie pictured above.
That post has links to other pies, but if you’re interested in the garden angle
Blueberry Peach Upside Down Cake ( actually this one is about half white nectarine)
My friend Nancy is not big on baking, but she does love belonging to the Maine Slice of The Cake Committee, so I suggested she try the impressive-for-how-little-fuss-it-takes Blueberry Peach etc. cake from The 3000 Mile Garden. Then I got to feeling uneasy, on account of not having made one for quite a while…
Decided it might be smart to bake one up, just to be sure I was still proud of it. Did. Am. But
Though I do say so myself, I make a mean rhubarb pie: elegantly plain, in the classic flaky crust plus sweetened fruit fashion; lily-painted, as in Deep Dish Rhubarb Peach Pie, and mixed with black cherry jam , as an easy rhubarb crostata that’s not really pie but is really tasty (and very nearly instant).
The pie that makes people say “ I thought I hated rhubarb, but this is wonderful!” is Carol’s Mother’s Deep Dish Rhubarb Custard Pie.
If you must store strawberries for more than a couple of hours, spread them out on a paper-towel lined plate so mold and bruises can’t travel.
The Theory Part
“ Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” (Samuel Butler, at some point in the late 16th century.*)
“Doubtless the cooks who have gone before could have devised a better strawberry dessert, but doubtless they never did.” ( me, at this point in 2008, after trying many vintage recipes before settling on the shortcake that follows). Read More…
In the market, at pick-your-owns and in plant catalogs.
Fair warning: I’m in strawberry delirium at the moment. We (well, Bill actually) got a big bowl of them for Father’s Day from Karen, Celia’s mother, and they were the Platonic ideal: firm but tender, very juicy, flavorful, sweet, and FRAGRANT? Omigosh. They perfumed the entire kitchen all afternoon, until I made them into shortcake – a subject about which I feel strongly – recipe coming next post. Biscuits, only biscuits, do not talk to me about cake.
Karen with home-grown gift
Or don’t bother to talk about making anything. When you get strawberries this good all you need to do is eat them. The part that takes effort is acquisition.
Getting industrial strawberries is easy; like industrial tomatoes they’re available everywhere always. And all of the tomato wisdom about far tastier when fresh and local certainly applies. But with strawberries ” vine-ripened” matters far more because strawberries – unlike tomatoes – cannot continue to ripen after they leave the plant.
They do get softer as they age ( except the gigantic iron strawberries sold for chocolate-dipping). But they don’t get any sweeter or more intensely flavorful. Whatever goodness they have when they’re picked, that’s all they’ll ever have.
Yet ripe strawberries are fragile and short-lived. Result: only berries that need not travel far or change hands often can be allowed to ripen fully. And only growers who sell locally can risk growing “home garden” varieties known more for flavor than durability.
So if you crave strawberry delerium – and don’t happen to know Karen – the places to get fruit are farmers markets, pick-your-own farms, and your own back yard.
Karen got her plants from a friend and doesn’t know their name, but these look a lot like Sparkle, a home garden variety introduced in 1942 and still popular in the Northeast, the region where it does best.
At the Market: go for sprightly green calyces ( the cap of leaves at the top) and stems that are fresh-looking. Don’t be put off by small berries or berries that aren’t all the same size; many of the tastiest varieties are neither large nor uniform. Some very sweet berries are not dark red, but if they’re light it doesn’t hurt to ask for a taste. And beware of super deep color too; the berries may be so close to overripe they’ll melt before you get them home.
At Pick-your-own farms: Try to get there either at the beginning or toward the end of the day. In many places people make side money picking at these farms and selling the fruit for a small profit. They show up early; they know what they’re doing; and they’re fast. By the time they leave, a lot of the fruit that was ripe at daybreak will be leaving with them. Fortunately, they seldom come back for a second round and strawberries can ripen in a matter of hours. On hot days late afternoon can offer great picking, especially when the weather is so brutal it discourages the competition.
In the Garden: Strawberries are already among the easiest fruits to grow, and if Colony Collapse Disorder continues they’re going to be an even better bet. In contrast to most other soft fruits, strawberries don’t rely primarily on honey bees; our native wild bees pollinate a lot of them and can continue to do so – assuming, of course, our native bees are still around themselves…
A disquisition for another day. To return to our berries,
Leaving aside specialty berries like fraises des bois, there are 3 types to consider: June bearers, everbearers and day neutrals. For descriptions of individual varieties consult plant sellers like Nourse Farms and Daisy Farms.
June Bearers – might better be called “once bearers.” They make a single large crop in spring and that’s it. They’re the original “garden strawberry,” the tastiest of the large-fruited types, and the one that offers far and away the widest choice of varieties.
Everbearers – their better name is “twice bearers,” one crop in spring and another, smaller crop in fall, with only a few berries here and there in between. Quality varies widely and is strongly climate dependant. Be sure you choose one that’s right for your region.
Day Neutrals – keep fruiting from spring to fall, with the largest and tastiest fruit often coming as the weather cools down. Berries tend to be on the small side but there are a lot when you add up a whole season’s worth.
Strawberry shortcake, made with biscuits. Recipe coming soon to a blog near you.
Now that the dominant Northeastern color scheme is evergreen with red and white accents , instead of orange and gold and brown; now that there is Christmas music in the supermarket (gaaak), and the scent of holiday baking has replaced the scent of autumn leaves, it’s tough to stay focused on making sure you’re ok in the apple department. But this is the about the last chance to do it. Any minute now, specialty orchards will close; the last of the local oddcrops will be gone and although there will be apples galore; there will not be many – if any – northern spies, winesaps, Jonathans, Greenings…
Stock up if you have a cool spot to store them: it’s best to keep apples in a humid place that hovers around 34 degrees and does not have any onions, potatoes (or flowerbulbs being forced) in it. If for some reason you don’t have such a place, make and freeze a large batch of Chunky Roasted Applesauce. It isn’t just that homemade tastes better than boughten, it’s also that homemade from new crop, local apples tastes better than homemade based on supermarket fruit.
CHUNKY ROASTED APPLESAUCE
Cheesecloth/ aluminum foil/ plastic freezer bags
Enough apples to fill a 3 inch deep , non-reactive roasting pan that’s at least 12 x 14 inches. Choose an assortment for best flavor and texture: Spies, Winesaps and Cameos, for instance, or Rome Beauty, Baldwin, Jonagold and Macs.
A glug of cider, a little salt, (maybe sugar, but probably not)
1. Heat the oven to 325 . Peel and core the apples, reserving about a fourth of the debris.
2. Cover the bottom of the roasting pan with a generous ¼ inch of cider. Cut the apples into rough chunks about ½ inch square. Tie the reserved debris in a square of the cheesecloth. Put the apples in the pan and bury the cheesecloth bag in the middle.
3. Cover tightly with the foil and start baking. Check and stir at 15 minute intervals until you have a mixture of very tender apple chunks and fallen apart apple mush ( proportions of each will depend on the varieties of apples, their relative age, and the year’s growing conditions). You may need to add more cider if all the apples are dry-fleshed bakers, but don’t add any more than necessary to prevent burning. If the apples are swimming after a half hour, remove the foil and roast uncovered until things thicken up.
4. When the applesauce is done, in anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half or more, take out about a half cup of it and leave the rest to keep warm in the turned-off oven. Stir a tiny pinch of salt into the half-cup and chill rapidly (outdoors or in the freezer) until it’s at room temperature. Taste. If it absolutely screams out for sugar, now is the time to add some to the warm applesauce. Otherwise, just stir in a bit of salt. ( Salt is optional, of course, but it does a lot to bring out the fruit flavor.)
5. Let the applesauce cool, then fish out the bag of peels and pack the sauce in the freezer bags, allowing plenty of headroom. Put the bags on their sides on cookie sheets and smooth the sauce so it makes flat packages of even thickness. Freeze. The flat packages mean quick freezing, which is better for flavor and texture, and they thaw quickly too, which is handy. But they are also vulnerable to breakage (and getting lost). Once they’re frozen, pack them in a larger bag.