Pickled Strawberries, Round 2

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Of all the wisdom I have imparted in the past couple of years, my pickled strawberry recipe has been one of the most consistently popular posts. I recall being inspired to make these after visiting Garden at the Cellar, a particularly tasty farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Chef Will Gilson, where pickled strawberries were featured with one of the daily specials. The next day I basically swapped strawberries for cucumbers in a pickle recipe to see what might happen. And well, they were a tad strange. Certainly interesting and unique, but it was as if they too perfectly straddled the line of sweet and savory. I brought them to a few dinner parties and friends were excited to taste them, but would chew them thoughtfully, perhaps taking just one more to ensure that their flavors were a bit too odd to go back for a third. I still assert that they can make a nice accompaniment for a charcuterie platter or cheese plate, but only for the more adventuresome palate.

So with this year’s batch of fresh-picked strawberries I decided to tweak my own recipe, this time using my grandmother’s bread and butter pickles as a basis. I made two version, one more local than the other. Both turned out well – although the version with honey is a bit sweeter and more complex. These are certainly on the sweet side – the amount of added sweetener ensured that, although in the future if I started with sweeter strawberries I would cut it down even further. As it was, this season’s berries didn’t quite hold up to last season’s. So for all those looking for a pickled strawberry recipe, I ask you to give some feedback on this one. I think that if I were to make this again, I’d stick with honey as a sweetener and add maybe black peppercorns for bite or substitute balsamic vinegar in place of some of the white vinegar. Oh well… maybe next year.

Sweet Pickled Strawberries

*fills about a pint jar of strawberries

In a sauce pan, over medium heat: heat 1 cup vinegar, 3/4 – 1 cup sweetener (depending on sweetness of berries, sweetener used and personal taste) and 2 tablespoons of salt. Perhaps a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Heat until the sweetener and salt are dissolved and the liquid reaches a simmer.

Meanwhile, clean and de-stem enough small, ripe, blemish-free berries to fill a clean pint jar. Layer in a few clean and unbruised mint or basil leaves.

Pour the boiling liquid over the strawberries. Once at room temperature, store in the fridge. Let them sit 12 – 24 hours or more before serving.

Watch me pickling!

Strawberry Season & Celebrating Local Farms – Now Multi-Media!

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Yesterday, once the clouds broke, I convinced my husband to go strawberry picking with me. I thought I had missed the season, but the late spring and mix of hot and cool temperatures have kept the strawberry fields in full harvest mode. In fact, I had never seen plants so loaded with fruit! Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains of late, most of the fruit was blemished. Some enough to still pick and eat (I knew I could cut off the soft parts and use them in short cake topping or fresh-sliced on yogurt) while too many others were not. And, unfortunately, the flavor wasn’t what I remembered from seasons past. But still, a short half hour later we had almost ten pounds of fruit among us.

From past experience, I knew these had to be processed as quickly as possible. So today I cleaned them all, dipped them all in boiling water for a few seconds (a recent discovery, as this will keep fresh berries from rotting and molding for a few days longer) and froze many of them. You can watch this process here on my Youtube channel. I also set some fresh berries aside for eating, pickled some (recipe and video to come!) and boiled the rest in a bit of honey water for shortbread topping. I decided against jam this year, in part because I will be picking raspberries with my mom, aunt and cousins next week and anticipate a full-on jam session then.

However, what yesterday’s farm visit really did get me thinking about was the fickleness of nature and the challenges of farming. I saw so many strawberries that would be rotting on the vine. Strawberries that were bad before they were ripe; berries that could not have been saved. As I uncovered more ruined berries than good, I remembered the large swaths of the country (the world, even) that are currently in a drought situation, and perhaps just as many areas that are flooded or experiencing epic rains. There are crops struggling to grow in all of these places, and people much more dependent upon those crops than I am upon my strawberries. I thought of the stereotype of the stoic farmer – one who does not express rage or sadness but resignation over a crop ruined by pests or rain or oppressive heat. And maybe for the first time, in my very tiny way, I could understand why. What could the farmer do but watch the last few weeks of rain come down, unable to alleviate the certain consequences. To be a farmer is to anticipate that nothing can be anticipated and plan for any eventuality. For many, that becomes untenable. And for each farm lost, many people lose a local source of food and large parcels of land that have been cared for by generations of one family.

So yesterday, I picked a bit more than I might have once I thought about the fate of my local farmer. And I remembered as well why I made the trek in the rain earlier in the day to shop the local farmer’s market. I was reminded why I am part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) which requires paying for the season’s worth of produce before the sprouts are even out of the ground. Every year I have experienced an embarrassment of riches from my CSA – weeks so full of gorgeous vegetables that it felt like a full time job to eat and preserve it all. But just as easily my weekly take might have been a quart of mushy strawberries, or worse, nothing. A CSA is a way to invest in a local farm, to help insure them against a rainy spring or drought-filled summer. Because I was reminded yesterday that my life is better when local farms thrive, and of course, so is theirs.

Smoking in the City

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The biggest question I had was: how do I smoke 5 pounds of pork without my neighbors calling the fire department? The answer, I discovered, was much easier than anticipated. Smoking may be time consuming, but is not difficult. In fact, one of the hardest decisions I had to make what choosing what hunk of meat I planned on smoking for my inaugural attempt.

While I had a few pounds of Chestnut Farm country-style ribs in my freezer, something about smoking felt very “Go Big Or Go Home” so I went to my local butcher and checked out his offerings. On one hand, I wanted something big enough to withstand a few hours in the smoker, but I also wanted a cheaper cut of meat to hedge my bets in case my first smoking effort was a failure. The verdict: a 5 pound, bone in pork thigh, which came in under twenty dollars (and is locally sourced, humanely raised, antibiotic free, yada yada).

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The day before I planned to smoke, I made a dry rub with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, paprika and ground hot pepper. Sweet and spicy – just the way I like it. I covered the pork in the rub and wrapped it in plastic wrap overnight.

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The next day I turned my charcoal grill into a smoker. Which, simply put, meant that I put a smallish mound of coals on one side of the grill and lit them, letting them set for maybe ten minutes to heat up. Next I put my smoke box of water-soaked hickory chips on top of the coals. I checked the temp with a grill surface thermometer and placed the pork on the grill when I confirmed that the temp was between 200 – 300 degrees (which it was after the ten minutes or so of prep above). This is the magic smoking temperature range that I thought would be hard to maintain (spoiler: it wasn’t!). The grill top was lowered and I just let it sit there, checking maybe every half hour or so.

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For a three hour smoke, I added more coals each hour and I added more hickory chips after about an hour and a half, at which time I also flipped the pork. But in all, the temp stayed pretty constant around 250 degrees, and when it dipped to closer to 200, I added a few more coals.  The smoke wafted out of the half-closed top vent a bit, but nothing to call the firemen about. And yes, my entire block smelled like a smoke house. In the best possible way. After three hours I put the pork in a covered roasting pan in a 250 degree oven with an inch of liquid (I used half-water, half-cider) for another three hours and then, willingly, impatiently, DUG IN.

I’m sorry I was not able to take any pictures of the delicious dark brown crust, or the half-inch red ring around the edges of the meat that I’ve heard is the marker of a good smoke. Please forgive me for not photographing how I used forks to shred the tender pork or transcribing the exact ingredients and measurements of the whiskey barbeque sauce I served atop the meat. But, after smelling smoking pork for six hours, would you have the patience to document everything before digging in? I didn’t think so.

Corned Beef: After the Cabbage

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Four pounds of corned beef for two people is a lot of corned beef. Yet it is also not nearly enough. This corned beef was amazing and I had to keep myself from eating half of it in one sitting. After I corned it for four days (one day per pound), I rinsed it and then braised it in water plus about a cup of hard cider for two and a half hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions in the last thirty minutes. What came next, however, made all the difference: I slathered the fatty side of the brisket with a honey and mustard glaze and put in under the broiler for about four minutes (or until the honey started to caramelize).

The first night I served slabs in a bowl with broth and veggies. Classic corned beef and cabbage. It was good, but the broth was a bit salty and sour. Maybe too much so for a lot of eating on its own. I’m going to doctor it up for a better tasting soup in the next few days.

The following day I made reubens. These were amazing, especially with the creamy, sour, sweetness of all of the ingredients. The basic preparation includes Russian dressing (I made my own with mayo, ketchup, minced home-canned dill pickles) on both sides of the bread. I warmed the sandwich open-faced in the oven: slices of meat on one side, sauerkraut and swiss cheese on the other, and then assembled for a final toasting of the bread. Really, one of the best sandwiches in the world. I would have taken a picture, but I couldn’t wait that long to eat it.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

My mother, a full-blooded Italian-American, loves corned beef and cabbage this time of year. In fact, of the dishes I remember her making many times when growing up, the big pot of corned beef and cabbage is the only one that comes to mind that doesn’t involve red sauce or Italian spices. Thus, when Charcutepalooza’s third challenge was to brine our own brisket for corned beef, I immediately thought of my mother. Unfortunately she is five hundred miles away, but I still have a pot of brining brisket in my fridge at the moment in her honor.

Interestingly, I haven’t encountered much corned beef and cabbage in my past decade-plus of inhabiting the very Irish city of Boston. And this despite that my husband is a musician who regularly plays most of the Irish pubs within a three mile radius (which is many more pubs than one who has not spent time in the Boston area might imagine). I also never noticed it on a menu when I accompanied him on an Irish tour a few years back, where we enjoyed meals of mostly lamb stews or shepherds pie with beef at a dozen or so pubs and restaurants around the west and south of Ireland. So I did a little research and discovered that corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dish. In fact, Ireland provided much of the meat for cured – or “corned” beef – that was then shipped to England, France and the English colonies from the 1600s to the mid 1800s, often at the expense of the nutrition of the Irish. Some Irish, when they arrived in America, began eating corned beef because of its associations with luxury in their home country coupled with its modest price in their adopted country.

Come to think of it, the corned beef that I have most recently eaten has been in a reuben sandwich from a Jewish deli – and might have been labeled as brisket or brined brisket and not “corned beef”. However the term “corned” refers to the Old English word for “particles” or the salt that was used to preserve the meat, so any salt-cured meat could be called thus. Yum, reubens. I’ll have to make at least one with my cured brisket. Which will be ready in three days and twenty two hours. I am already counting down… Sorry you won’t be able to taste this, Mom!

Corning – or wet-curing – brisket is easy. I heated the salt, sugar and spices to help them dissolve in the water. Note that I heated them in a smaller pot and then cooled that mixture to add to the larger pot with the meat. I could have done in all in the same pot but this way I can start curing sooner because less has to cool before I add the meat.

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Once the brine was assembled and cooled, I submerged a four pound brisket into the pot.

 

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And then put a bowl on top to keep it submerged. I will let this sit for four days in the fridge and then will simmer this in a pot with fresh water and spices for about three to four hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions to the broth in the last half hour or so. Then I will call my mother and tell her that I am thinking of her.

 

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My Personal History of Bacon

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Growing up bacon was something we ate on Christmas morning – the only thing I ever remember my dad’s father, or in my mind my “American” Grandpa, cooking. Maybe it was because of my mother’s constant health kick or perhaps because my dad seemed to want to leave the food of his childhood behind, but despite both of my parents being good cooks, I didn’t realize the pleasures of bacon until well into my twenties.

Perhaps this was because Dad was always on the lookout for something different, new – and bacon was a classic. He was brought up on typical middle-American fare: his mother’s preserves from the garden coupled with lunch meat, white bread, baked goods made from Crisco and soda pop. While my mother was alternately on a health kick or cooking elaborate Italian dishes from her family’s dinner table, my father waffled between sweets like Oreos or Pepsi (his late night snacks of choice that could often be found next to his side of the bed) and semi-gourmet dishes inspired by the latest species of seafood available at the local market or a meal he remembered from our yearly vacation to the Florida Keys. While my mother was learning to embrace her heritage through food once she started her family, my father was using his role as a modern husband (who shared the cooking duties) to expand our culinary palate, and, perhaps, prove his worldliness beyond that of his rural upbringing.

This only child has been equally inspired by the culinary leanings of both of my parents – once I moved out on my own for good at nineteen I finally called my mother to dictate my Nani’s recipes over the phone so I could cook sauce and bracciole and stuffed artichokes for my new boyfriend. I wanted to recreate Italian recipes as authentically as possible. However, from my dad I inherited my culinary sense of adventure – I would try the strangest thing on the menu if I was someplace new and was the first of my family to travel overseas. To facilitate both sources of my culinary inspiration, I asked for Pyrex baking dishes and a Cuisinart for Christmas when my peers were requesting walkmans and CDs and Bennetton sweaters. And, eventually, maybe I turned a little snooty. On visits home for holidays, I might pick at the Jello salad or boxed stuffing served at Grandma’s house. In my worldliness, I had come to eschew this typical American fare as inauthentic cooking – short cuts learned and repeated by too many housewives in the fifties and sixties and seventies uninspired by history from the old world. This was what I had seen my father rebelling against during my childhood after all – we rarely ate from a mix and my father would choose to make snapper and plantains over tuna noodle casserole any day – while my mother strived towards authentic Italian dishes like her Nana used to make.

Over the next decade, cooking became an increasingly important part of my life. I found myself starting a container garden and then moving on to a larger plot. I began canning and even called up my grandma – my Dad’s mother – for recipes and advice. My parents were now divorced, and my mother and I would cook together, Nani no longer with us, for my friends in the city or for the extended family when I was visiting my hometown. I still received spices and spatulas and fancy pans for Christmas. And when my dad and I would catch up on the phone once or twice a week, our conversation would invariably turn to cooking – a technique or recipe my dad was trying out or an ingredient I found at the local farmer’s market.

“Yeah, we always had them in the garden out back,” Dad might say about my discovery of watermelon radishes or golden beets.

I told my dad about the “farmhouse” cheese I made on the stovetop of my urban galley kitchen and he replied, “Your great grandma made that all the time on the dairy farm.”

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Had I forgotten or simply never known that my great grandparents, whom I met a few times as a child, had owned a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania? Of course my dad would have spent plenty of time helping them in the summers when they visited. My mother often shared stories of her Italian grandparents’ growing up and I wondered if my father’s heritage was a mystery because I hadn’t asked or because he didn’t offer details. Perhaps we had both been so focused on new ideas that we forgot to talk about the past.

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But back to the bacon – I was in the process of curing my own and was telling my dad about it on the phone that Sunday afternoon. I explained how easy it was – I had rubbed a two-pound pork belly (the largest I could find at our local winter farmer’s market) in a mix of curing salt and sugar and added some cayenne, ground pepper and maple syrup for flavor. It had now been curing in a plastic zip-locked bag in the fridge for a few days and plenty of liquid was already being leeched out. He should try doing this himself, I suggested.

“Oh we used to make bacon on the dairy farm,” my dad told me. “I remember that when it was time for great grandpa to slaughter a pig that great grandma would set up a big pot over an open flame to render down the fat to use for cooking. Then they would break down the animal and use every part – the belly for bacon, the chops for roasting….”

Did she bake the pork belly in low heat or smoke it, I had wanted to know. Living in a city apartment, mine would have to be baked. My dad didn’t remember, but assumed it had been smoked. “Great grandpa was always smoking and curing. To feed a big family he had to get creative with how he stored his meat.” Of course he did.  Because smoking and curing were invented and perfected from necessity – hunters and then farmers who had to figure out how to preserve the food they had when they had it to continue to feed their large families throughout cold winters or hot summers or famine.

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My bacon was done curing a few days later and I snuck an end piece after it spent some time in the oven. It was a bit salty, but I loved the combination of sweet and spicy from my additions to the cure. My dad was five hundred miles away, and would have to take my word on how my bacon turned out. So, in honor of both parents who helped to shape the cook that I am today, I decided to use two chopped thick-cut pieces of bacon and a cup of stovetop ricotta cheese to fill homemade raviolis to be served with a simple brown butter sauce and some grated parmesan and fried sage. The resulting meal was more Italian than not, but had the cured meat and homemade cheese from my “American” side. Inspired by my past as much as by the world around me.

 

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Duck Prosciutto

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My grandfather was a hunter. I recall playing with his duck call (a palm-sized wooden box with a paddle that you rubbed across the top to make a quacking sound) and remember hearing about the times (yes there was more than one) when he returned home from his day in the woods, reeking of skunk. Grandpa didn’t have a sense of smell – a congenital condition that kept him out of the armed service during World War II – and he didn’t seem to care who or what he startled while stalking his game.

My grandmother was a good sport about this all. She had to be. They had five kids and for the first decade or so of their marriage were barely making enough to keep clothes on their backs and food on the table. Grandma was a housewife – a stay-at-home-mom who never finished high school. But she grew most of the family’s food in the large garden out back – rows of cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons, raspberries, carrots and onions – that would be eaten fresh, canned or frozen. Grandma crocheted blankets and sweaters, darned socks and made dresses, cut the grass and shoveled the walk. And she would, without flinching, pluck and clean the birds grandpa brought home from his hunting trips. On at least one occasion I remember her clearning a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, and while the green beans and corn bread and pumpkin pies were cooking she sent her skunk-sprayed husband to sit in a bath of tomato juice and then prepared the freshly shot bird from feather to stuffing. That year we were all told to watch out for bird shot when we were chewing.

But despite seeing Grandpa’s hunting paraphernalia every fall, and being warned away from the locked cabinet where he kept his rifles, I don’t recall eating much of what he brought home aside from that infamous Thanksgiving turkey. By the time I came along hunting was more for fun than necessity, after all, and a few duck or pheasant wouldn’t go too far in a family whose dining room table was being set with nearly two dozen places.

Grandpa has been gone now for nearly a decade, his final breaths taken in the garden that provided sustenance for his family for so many years. I never gave much thought to the shelves of jars in their basement, the back corner root cellar, or whatever else Grandma and Grandpa’s old farmhouse held in its nooks and crannies. But these past few weeks, when I was looking for the perfect spot – not too warm nor cool, with moderate humidity – where I might hang my curing duck breasts, I thought of my grandparents and their sprawling rural homestead.

Making duck prosciutto was surprisingly easy. I buried two one-pound moulard duck breasts in kosher salt for 24 hours and then dusted them with black pepper. Then I hung them, wrapped in cheesecloth, from a rafter in my basement for a week, or until they felt firm and their flesh had turned a deep red.

I cut them down from the night before a snow storm was expected, impressed with my own resourcefulness and the ease of preserving something as… fragile… as raw meat. There were certain scientific processes that I didn’t fully understand that were happening to prevent the meat from rotting or molding that made them edible and perhaps even more delicious than roasting or sauté-ing. Considering the shelves of preserved vegetables in my grandparents’ basement, I wondered if they ever cured their own meat after Grandpa had a particularly good day of hunting. That night I sampled a small slice, leaving some of the thick fat in favor of the rich meat; just a taste to help me dream of what extravagant meal I might create the next morning, an almost certain snow day.

A few hours later I woke to blowing snow and no power. I could see a pine tree had snapped in half a few houses down the hill from my house and took the power lines with it. Utility trucks struggled through the accumulating snow while the thermostat dipped to 55 degrees. The power must have been off since dawn. By candlelight my husband and I lit a burner of our gas stove to heat up day old coffee. My plans for the prosciutto – in an omelet, with a bit of melted fontina and sprinkled with sal de provence – were foiled. Instead I took the duck fat from the night before and rendered it in a cast iron skillet. Once it was crackling I fried up two eggs. I placed them on top of toast, also heated on the stove top, with a slice of the prosciutto in between. A breakfast sandwich that grandpa himself might have made out at hunting camp – as delicious and satisfying on a cold and dark winter morning in the city as it might have been looking out the window of his hunting cabin – a shack really – as the late fall sunrise started to burn the frost off the leaves of the trees. Had Grandpa, brought up by a Holland-born lumberman’s son in central Pennsylvania, even heard of the word prosciutto? Probably not. But knowing that we might have tasted the same simple meal, even decades and a world apart, made me feel closer to him than I had in a long time.

Homemade Holiday Plum Brandy

Strangely, compared to many Italian-American families, the adults rarely drank at Sunday dinner when my cousins and I were little. Maybe my Nani disallowed more than a glass of wine, served in juice glasses, wanting to set a good example for the kids. Sadly, she is not here to explain that anomaly, and how useful that lesson was to my cousins and me is of some debate, seeing that we regularly go through bottles of red wine during present-day family events. According to my mother, this was more akin to how she grew up – with aunts and uncles and her Nana and Nanu quaffing homemade vino openly, Uncle Tony sometimes sneaking my mother sips when my Nani wasn’t looking. The only time I recall illicit sips of alcohol was during the holidays or other special occassion when Nani would serve her homemade plum brandy in tiny aparatif glasses, my cousins and I finishing the last shallow pool of liquid in the bottom of the glasses when we helped clear the table at the end of the meal.

Those stolen sips were the only I ever had of Nani’s brandy – the jars found in the basement years after her death deemed too old to consume by the time they were discovered. So, inspired by the beautiful pints of tiny purple plums that reminded me of those weighing down my Papa’s trees when I was small, I thought I would try my own batch of plum brandy. I made a batch of plum brandy in the manner described below, hopefully in time to toast my Nani and the holidays of my childhood in three months.

For one quart of plum brandy

I mixed 1/2 cup sugar into 2 cups of vodka and let it set. Then I pierced the small plums with the tips of my knife a number of times before slicing it and putting the pieces into a quart jar, filling it until the fruit reached about two inches from the top. (About a pint and a half of plums.) I covered the plums with the vodka mixture, ensuring that all fruit was submerged, and securely capped the jar. I put this in a cool, dark corner and plan to open it in three months.

I Love Tomatoes! Canning Whole and Diced Tomatoes

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love thee in a caprese. I love thee in a marinara with garlic and fresh basil. I love thee straight from the vine. I love thee with fresh mozz atop a pizza. I love thee so much that I cannot imagine the long, cold winter months without a taste of your summer sweetness. Thus: I spent yesterday afternoon preserving thee in jars for those chilly days that would come all too soon.

I didn’t think I’d be devoting my afternoon to this endeavor, but 1/2 bushels of tomatoes were only $18 at the local farmer’s market so I readjusted my plans. I would so much rather have my own tomatoes to use for sauces and stews in the winter than buy cans from the grocery store – the flavor was so much better and I knew exactly what I was ingesting. Plus, I tend to use tomatoes as a base for many of my deep winter slow-cooking braises and soups that I never seem to have enough on hand, so I figured I could spend a beautiful summer’s afternoon indoors.

Once home I dug out my quart jars, washed them with soap and water and got my large canning pot filled with water and heating on the stove. The sterilizing and then sealing of the jars in the boiling water are by far the most time consuming steps in the canning process. I put the jars I was going to use (today’s batch would be 7 quart jars, which will use only about 2/3 of my half bushel, but my canning pot can only hold that many jars at one time and I didn’t feel like standing over a hot stove deep into the evening) into the water bath to sterilize for ten minutes once the water started to boil. I also put the lids that I would need into a pan on the stove and covered them with water. Once they boiled for a few minutes I put the pan aside for later use.

Next I washed and de-stemmed the tomatoes while boiling a second sauce pan (more wide than deep) half-full of water on another burner. I also prepped a large mixing bowl half filled with ice and water. Once the water on the stove top started to boil, I placed my tomatoes into the pan for about 30 second each, next moving them to the ice water for 1 – 2 minutes, and then finally to a colander to drain and finish cooling. At this point my kitchen had water and tomato juice covering most surfaces.

I was dreading the skinning step, but it was even easier than I remembered from the last time I canned: once the tomatoes were cool, the skins really did slip right off, with only a few so stubborn that I needed my paring knife to fishing them off. I was trying to come up with a creative use for them, but helping out in  the compost was the best that I could summon.

Next, I placed about half of the tomatoes back into the (cleaned) sauce pan with just enough water to cover them and turned the heat on medium high, waiting for them to boil. Luckily I realized in time that some of the tomatoes would be too large to fit into the jars whole, so I halved and quartered the bigger fruits.

By now the jars had been sterilized so I carefully, only burning myself slightly, pulled them from the water and got them ready for the tomatoes. In each jar I put 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid (lemon juice can also be used) and a teaspoon of salt. The former is to balance the ph for storage, the latter is for flavor.

Once the tomatoes and water had boiled for two minutes I filled the quart jars, leaving about a half inch headspace. I used a plastic knife to release any air bubbles, cleaned the rim of the jars and then put on the lids, only screwing on the rings loosely. These jars all went back into the canning pot and boiled for 45 minutes to finish sealing.

Sure my kitchen floor was damp and my towels were stained with red juice. But I knew when I pulled those jars from the cupboard months later, when there might be snow on the ground and no leaves on the trees, that I would remember this day, the sweat dripping from my brow (more from the humidity than the exertion), and the satisfying pops I heard as the jars sealed in the taste of summer.

Pickled Strawberries

I dragged my husband along for our yearly strawberry-picking adventure. I supposed I could do it alone, but it seems less of a chore and more of an outing with someone else. We arrived at Verrill Farm in Concord, MA (where last year we had a semi-celebrity sighting: Doris Kearns Goodwin! How did we even know what she looked like? And she was in the farm stand area, not in the field) less than half an hour before they were to close for the day. The berries were perfect: fat with rain and sunshine and as sweet as they would get before bursting and becoming insect food. Six pounds of perfect (although smallish) berries only took us until closing time to pick.

I let them sit for a day, only slicing them into yogurt, before I figured out what I might do with six pounds of berries. Sure, jam was great, but I had made jam for the past few years, never quite giving away or finishing each season’s efforts. My parents and friends were getting tired of the same gifts. On the second evening that the berries sat on my counter, covered lightly in a vain attempt to keep out fruit flies, I met a friend at Garden at the Cellar, one of my favorite small plate restaurants that specializes in farm to table and seasonal food. The bartender (who, at one point plucked basil from a plant on the bar to make my cocktail) described the specials, one a pate that came with pickled strawberries. I asked her what the berries were like – salty or sweet.

“The pickling doesn’t make them salty, really, it just brings out the berry flavor. They’re amazing, really,” she told me. I didn’t order the dish, but I did make pickled strawberries the next day, inspired by her description alone.

This recipe is loosely interpreted, and of course relies on small berries that are incredibly sweet, and not at all bruised or rotting. The result is tangy from the vinegar, but sweet and complex from the spices and the berries themselves. An interesting condiment to fancy cheese, I would say, or even pate or fois gras.

Pickled Strawberries

In a saucepan I combined 4 cups water, 1 cup white vinegar and 4 tablespoons salt. To that I added a teaspoon each of mustard seed, black pepper corns and vanilla extract (I would have scraped a vanilla bean if I had one), two bay leaves and one cracked cinnamon stick. I boiled for five minutes and let cool to room temperature.

After sterilizing my jars (the brine would fill about four pint jars) I filled the jars loosely with the best strawberries, stems still on. When the brine was cool, I filled the jars, using a clean butter knife to help release any air bubbles and cap them. I tried some after a few hours in the brine and they were tangy and sweet and totally unexpected.

The flavors are so strong, eating within a week would be great. Although I did process two jars for future gifts using the technique described in Blue Ribbon Preserves my canning bible. In this cookbook, Linda Amendt recommends boiling the jars (with fresh lids on of course) at between 180 and 190 degrees for 30 minutes. This lower temperature helps keep the color and texture of the pickles. I did this and the berries did shrink a bit and were a bit paler than before, but I do trust that the jars will keep longer – by months or even years if unopened. The brine turns a nice magenta though, obscuring the pink-grey berries. An interesting experiment.