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.

Homemade Yogurt

Making yogurt is So Easy. I don’t care if you want to call me a hippy. Or if you think only post-feminist eco-housewives with too much time on their hands make their own yogurt. I swear that if you try this just once, you will become a convert. Maybe my fourth or fifth batch is on the stove as I type, and my method is failproof and is largely adapted from various recipes I found online. What you will need: a candy thermometer, a big pot (some people have declared that a double boiler works better, however I only used that method once and I just made an even bigger mess, although it also worked fine), milk and a few tablespoons of plain yogurt (preferably small batch and/or local and/or organic, etc. I started with Narragansett, but I’ve read Stonyfield Farms is another good one.)

I use whole milk – I tried this with low fat and it worked fine, but the yogurt was a bit thinner than I wanted so I switched back to the full fat kind. And I should also mention – although this should be obvious – that everything should be clean and sterile. But other than those two caveats, just jump right in and make your own batch!

First, over medium to low heat, warm the mik to 185 degrees. (This might take 5 – 10 minutes, perhaps stir it a few times and skim off any film that forms on top.) Then, cool the milk to 120 degrees. Don’t let it cool below 90 degrees or something scientific that is supposed to happen won’t – thus you must keep an eye on it. I.e. don’t put it in the fridge and forget about it. When it reaches between 110 – 120 degrees add in about two tablespoons of plain yogurt and stir.

Next you must keep it warm for 5 – 8 hours. I found a number of useful tips on how to best do this: a purchased yogurt warmer would do the trick. But who wants to spend $50 on a glorified hot plate? If you have an oven with a pilot light that is always on you can keep it in there.  I generally have poured the milk into a metal bowl (conducts heat better) before cooling and have covered it with foil and wrapped it in a towel or two and allowed it to rest in either a cooler or the microwave. Both are insulted and keep heat in quite nicely. I have added a pitcher of boiling water to the cooler to help ensure that it stayed hot, but I am not sure if it is neccesary – depends on your cooler, I guess. You want as little extra space in either one as possible.

After about 5 hours or so the yogurt should be thick. A little green liquid on top is fine, just pour it off or stir it in. Transfer to smaller containers if you’d like or maybe flavor it with jam or maple syrup and toss it in the fridge. It should keep for at least a week – although I have kept it for as long as two weeks and it hasn’t seemed to go bad. Remember to keep a few extra tablespoons for your next batch though!

Active time: maybe 5 minutes, plus time watching the milk both heat up and cool down.

Cost: $3 for a half gallon of local milk = $3 for a half gallon of local yogurt

Upside Down Tomatoes

I love tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they might be my favorite food in the entire world. Unfortunately the ones purchased from the grocery store so rarely (if ever) have the same trancendental flavor. Thus I must get my yearly fix in the few short weeks that they are available locally during the harvest season – perhaps late July (at the earliest) through September. I have a good deal of plants at the community garden, a half-dozen varieties ready to be staked up to old trellises one they are big enough. And to maximize my harvest, I have a perhaps another dozen lined up in large pots in the sunniest sliver of my backyard.

This year, however, I devised a plan to use the last few square feet that might get enough sun to support life: I made four upside down (inspired by the “seen on tv” infomercial for the topsy turvy garden’s friend) tomato planters to hang along my small back porch.

The construction was simple and, at about $20 for all materials including the plants and dirt, cheap. First I bought 4 white buckets about a foot high and maybe ten inches in diameter. I cut a hole in the bottom (using a drywall saw was relatively easy) about 3 inches wide. Next I devised plant holders: one could hang them from screw hooks secured along the edge of a back patio, but I chose to have a 2 x 4 cut into four 18″ long segments and screwed them to the floor of my small porch so that they hung over the edge, about 5 feet from the ground. They key is that the location gets good sun, and the plants can grow about five feet from the planter.

Next I carefully threaded the seedlings through the hole, broke up the roots a bit, and watered them before adding dirt to fill the bucket. On top of the bucket I planted herbs. I hung them up and watered them again. Ta da!

Compost and Tomatoes

I’ve been tending to my rotting baby since the first of the year – I received a compost bin for Christmas and have been feeding it small bits of vegetable ends and the compost microbe sawdust that is supposed to speed the process along for those of us in a small, non-rural space. Miraculously, every time I think I am about to fill the three gallon or so sized bin, it shrinks in size, releasing its delicious and fecund compost tea from a spigot in the bottom.

But really, I have been stressing lately. Yes, it was composting rather quickly (the contents smelled suitably rancid and it was starting to look like a dirty version of the vegetable ends that I had been feeding the bin). But still, it wasn’t DIRT. And I really was going to fill the bin rather soon. I pondered this dilemma as a walked the eight blocks or so to  the local greenhouse for tomato seedlings, a half dozen of which would end up in the sunniest sliver of my back yard. A memory of my fifth grade history lesson drifted through my head: the native americans would plant a dead fish beneath their crops and allowed it to compost itself right into the ground. Why couldn’t I add my almost-compost to the bottom of my tomato pots?

Thus, an hour later, while swatting flies with a wave of my trowel, I added about six inches of my rotting baby to the bottom of my pots, filling them the rest of the way with garden soil. I loosened the roots at the bottom of the seedlings and planted them snugly in the pots, pressing the dirt around their thick stems. Them I watered them at the roots, letting them drink until the water pooled on the surface for a few minutes.

My compost bin is empty now – just in time to be filled with the stems of the local spinach we have draining in the sink and the root ends of the radishes I bought from Sherman’s the other day. With seedlings in the ground just starting to flower, I’m sure it won’t be long until I find ways to fill it once again.

Meat Share: Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA and Meat Sauce

I haven’t yet given appropriate due to my new, beloved meat share. Chestnut Farms offers a great deal – 10 pounds of meat per month (on a six month committment) for $80. I pick it up at in Arlington (the next town over) and if I get there early enough, I can even buy farm fresh eggs for $4/ dozen. We typically get a mix of chicken (legs, breast on bone), pork (chops on the bone, thinner boneless chops, ground), and beef (all cuts from filet to skirt to ground to burger patties). I’ve been told that once the lambs are big enough we’ll be getting some of their gracious offerings as well.

The pork sausage this month was fantastic. I took one link out of its casing and browned it in olive oil, then added chopped garlic, then tossed in a bunch of fresh tomatoes and cooked until it turned into a chunky sauce, seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh basil and oregano from the garden.

What I love about this meat is that it is so flavorful and so guilt-free. I know where these animals came from (all CSA members are welcome to visit the farm) and I know that they lived a satisfying, clean, and hormone- and antibiotic- free life. I know that I am supporting a family farm. I know that I am paying a fair price for my meal. And because I am savoring my food, and supplementing my mostly local veggies and grains with flavorful meat instead of building my meal around the protein, I eat less but still feel satisfied. The downside is that when I eat meat while dining out, it never quite satiates body or soul. A small price to pay.