It started with strawberries. This year the strawberries around me were disappointing. They smelled great and every other one tasted really good. But none of them were great and some where full on dull.
Then it was the raspberries. Same thing. Every other one tasted great like the seedy, sweet, sticky finger toppers of summer. But the others were just fine. I am now suddenly gripped with anxiety for cherries and peaches.
With each bite I felt disappointed. Let down that this season was a bit of a loss. Every spring I lie in wait, anticipating summer fruit season, practicing self control and eschewing berries from far away, for all sorts of reasons but mostly because they are a lifeless version of the fruit grown around here.
And then our fruit was not much more. Bummer. In the midst of my very small, private pity party I heard the voice of the first man I cooked for in my ear. “Welcome to being a chef,” was his reply when I was bemoaning the challenge of portioning vegetables that were vastly different sizes.
It was working for him at Zingerman’s Deli and that’s when I started to really understand the difference between large-scale, always available produce and the seasonal, specialty crops. Sometimes the better the ingredient, the less you have to do with it—berries dressed solely in a gossamer veil of cream. But sometimes the better a product the more fickle it can be. At the end of the day these are still agricultural products whose quality reflects the year’s growing season. They are not consistently perfect no matter how loudly the local, seasonal community protests that they are. (It should be noted that the other benefits of buying locally—the money maintained in the regional economy, the lowered carbon impact from not shipping such perishable items—hold true no matter the perfectness of the product.)
It is in that imperfection that we, as cooks, have an opportunity to exert our influence. If a pint of raspberries is the physical manifestation of sunshine in God’s country, I won’t add anything to them. If they are less than show-stopping, I have a chance to add other flavors to give lift to the dish and somehow that feels like it makes it more my own. I am a participant not just a bystander.
There are three things I generally do to fruit to lift them from the flavor doldrums, and this is true for stone fruits and melons as well as berries. Give them strength in numbers, add sweetness, or add acidity. Sometimes all three.
The safety in numbers simply means make it less about the individual bites of food. If one strawberry tastes great and the next two taste meh, blend them. Instead of a handful of blackberries over ice cream, I’ll lightly mash the berries together to average their attributes.
To add sweetness, I generally go for maple syrup or honey because the amber flavor roots the fruit more than white sugar for me. Just a drop or two at a time and more often than not any added sweetness also craves a pinch of salt. Salt is the foil to sugar and they elevate each other. Even in a perfect situation I add a pinch of salt to a bowl of cut and unadorned apricots.
To add acidity my hand floats most often to citrus, often orange over the more aggressive lemon. Acidity can also be achieved with a delicate vinegar—like very thick saba or aged balsamic—or with a bit of heat. Strawberries and grind of black pepper love each other. Raspberries and candied ginger and mint have secrets they only whisper to one another. Blueberries with a pinch of cayenne and honey want to run away together without telling their parents.
It is impossible to know the quality of the fruit in advance of buying but by tasting it and deciding if it needs your help, you can always make a delicious dish from the best of what is around us. Trust yourself and instead of feeling disappointed, allow for the opportunity to let your produce-enhancing-prowess shine.
I haven’t included a recipe for a crispy cookie with this recipe but the crunch of a thin almond cookie or oat biscuit would be the perfect addition.
- 1 C maple syrup
- ¼ C water
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- pinch of salt
- 3 C blueberries
- 1 lb greek yogurt
- In a medium saucepan heat everything except the berries and the yogurt
- Bring to a boil and then pour over the berries and toss to coat
- Allow to cool and then spoon over yogurt
I like adding crispy chickpeas (just toss them in olive oil and bake them until crunchy) or lentils to this to make it more of a lunch.
- 1 cantaloupe
- 4oz salty feta
- ½ tsp chili flakes
- ½ C olive oil
- 1 bunch mint
- Toast the chili flakes in a dry pan until fragrant
- Remove from the heat and add the olive oil and allow to cool (feel free to make this in larger batches because it will stay good forever on your counter)
- Cut the cantaloupe into slices or large chunks and lay out on a serving platter
- Sprinkle with the feta (or a big wedge if you want to make it more of a cheese dish)
- Drizzle with the chili oil
- Garnish with torn mint leaves and serve
I generally make this with strawberries and then transition to raspberries, blueberries and then cherries. I prefer mint with the raspberries and thyme with the cherries, but like all things it is a matter of personal preference.
- 1 qt strawberries
- ¼ tsp vanilla
- ¼ C honey
- 5 leaves basil
- 3 grinds of black pepper
- pinch of salt
- vanilla ice cream
- Wash and hull the strawberries and place in the bowl of a food processor
- Add the vanilla, honey, black pepper and salt
- Just before serving pulse the berries to make a chunky sauce
- Spoon over the vanilla ice cream and garnish with torn basil leaves