Thursday, June 14, 2012

Strawberries and Cream

Nothing announces the beginning of summer quite like fresh, local strawberries. These succulent jewels bear little resemblance to the tasteless gargantuans that tempt from produce shelves all winter long. It’s always a disappointment to give into that temptation. Better to wait for these few short weeks in June when strawberries taste like the real thing.

I used to have a small strawberry patch in my garden, but it took up too much space and I only ended up with a handful of berries, so I pulled them out. Same with the asparagus. Besides, there are several pick-your-own strawberry farms around that do a much better job. My favorite is the Last Resort Farm in Monkton, Vermont, an organic family farm that specializes in strawberries and offers row upon row of different varieties.

We’ve been coming here for years and have picked lazily in high humidity and hurriedly as storm clouds rolled over the mountains toward the valley where the farm is nestled. Today, however,is a perfect day for picking: clear blue skies and the temperature hovering around 80 degrees. The farmhand, a young woman with burnished shoulders, tells us it’s the earliest the berries have ever been ripe for picking, and that “they’re a really good batch, but it’s going to be a short season.” Better enjoy them while we can.

We set to work, picking a mix of super sweet Sparkles, slightly tart Cavendish, and complex L’Amour. Reflective of our personalities, our styles of picking are all quite different. Chris takes it seriously, getting right in there on his hands and knees, every so often making a wry comment that cracks us all up. 

Isabel is productive also, eating a few berries in between, but working her way down the row with focus, selectivity, and reflection. 

Faye eats more than she tosses into the container, as she has since she was little, when her mouth and fingers would be stained bright red by the time we finished. She laughs frequently and with gusto.

I pick some and eat some, sampling the different varieties and imagining what I’m going to make with all these gorgeous berries.

The fields are very well tended, but because the farm is certified organic, it’s not unusual to spot a few weeds here and there. Unlike weeds in my own garden, these I don’t mind. I’m even happy to see them because it’s a reminder of how healthy this soil and these berry plants are. (I guess I’m glad for weeds in my own garden too, but I don’t relish being the one pulling them!) The fact that the berries have a short shelf life is welcome also. They’re best eaten the same day you pick them. Preferably within hours.

Unless you want to use them in a tart or a pie. I've been mulling over what to make and decide that, since berries really are best eaten fresh, that’s what we would do. With homemade ice cream.

Last year for Father’s Day we gave Chris was an ice cream maker. It really was a gift for all of us, of course, and oh-my-goodness is the ice cream ever delicious. Since the lavender in my herb garden is blooming early this year, and I’ve been wanting to try making lavender ice cream, it seems like the perfect accompaniment to our strawberries.

Making ice cream is pretty simple and, as with anything, the quality of the final product is dependent on the quality of the ingredients. I use a basic ice cream recipe of 1 cup of whole milk, 2 cups of heavy cream, a pinch of salt, and sugar (a generous 1/2 cup, but up to 3/4 if you prefer it sweeter). All kinds of creative ingredients can be added to this base. If you have access to local milk and cream, all the better. I use products from Monument Farms Dairy, a third generation family dairy farm in Weybridge, VT.

The key to deep flavor is letting the ingredients, including the lavender or any other flavoring, rest for a few hours after combining. This allows the perfume to infuse the milk and cream.

After that, follow the directions for your particular ice cream maker, being careful not to overmix, which can result in bits of butterfat being strewn throughout your ice cream. For a soft serve style, you can eat the ice cream right out of the mixer.

I prefer to let it harden up for a few hours in the freezer, so  it scoops  into small balls, like gelato. Top with some fresh strawberries and you have a dessert straight out of Marie Antoinette’s Hameau. Pure and simple, but fit for a queen.

                      Lavender Ice Cream (adapted from Cuisinart Simple Ice Cream Recipe)

1 cup whole milk
¾ cup granulated sugar (I prefer it less sweet, a generous ½ cup)
Pinch salt
2 cups heavy cream
10 sprigs fresh lavender, separated (or 2 t dried lavender flowers)

Combine milk, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Stir in heavy cream and lavender. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours.

Turn on ice cream maker and pour mixture into the frozen freezer bowl. Let mix until thickened, about 18 minutes. Use immediately, or transfer ice cream to an airtight container and freeze for 2 hours. Remove from freezer about 10 minutes before serving.

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