Strawberries, Snakes and Jane Austen

Strawberries

It’s strawberry season again, but this year seems to be a washout.  Blame it on the rain and the lack of sunny days.  The local berries are just coming in but they are so sour I’ve decided to wait a week hoping we’ll get some sunnier weather.   The kitchen reno is still ongoing so I can’t bake a shortcake or make jam anyway. 

strawberry plant

For every one sweet one ripening in my little garden plot, there are two that make your mouth pucker.   Maybe that’s why the birds are leaving them alone?  And here I thought those plastic snakes I bought at the dollar store were working!    

snakes

This was a tip from another blogger last summer, as plastic snakes are supposed to act as a deterrent to the birds.   Walmart was out of snakes, so these are cheaper versions from Dollarama and the clerk told me they work so well they can’t keep them in stock.   They look more like skinny worms to me – and neon pink and blue?    Those birds must be color blind, but upon further research it appears birds have better visual acuity than humans and can see UV light and a wider range of colors.   I suspect they must be waiting for sweeter fare too.  

So I’ll leave you with a link to better days and last year’s blog, Strawberry Fields Forever, plus some Jane Austen.  

Strawberry Field

Strawberry Fields Forever

  StrawberriesStrawberry fields forever.   It sounds like a strawberry lover’s dream, but fortunately the science of greenhouse genetics has come up with a new strain of strawberry plant which bears fruit for four months – June, July, August and September.   Last year I planted two of these ever-bearing varieties which produced enough berries all summer to garnish a salad,

salad on plate
Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette

and provide the odd nibble, both for me and the birds. 

Strawberries

I think the birds feasted, whereas I was more like Emma of Jane Austen fame, the pleasure was in the anticipation.   (see literary postscript below

Although the farmers markets are now full of gorgeous red berries,  Market Strawberries there is a certain satisfaction to be had in growing your own or in visiting a farm to pick your own fruit, plus it is certainly cheaper.    The farm outside town sells quarts for $6 versus $2.50 to pick your own, a significant savings if you are buying enough to make jam or freeze.  

Strawberry Field

       I remember going strawberry picking when I was a teenager, (long past the age when helping out was fun), and then spending a couple of hours at the kitchen table hulling the stems before my mother would place them in freezer bags.   We always had a long freezer at one end of the farmhouse kitchen, a freezer so vast and deep that if you tried to get to the bottom of it to find the last roast or bag of corn you might topple in.  Every summer those berries would go in the freezer and the next summer they would get thrown away.   I remember my mother making a strawberry shortcake in the winter exactly once and nobody liked it because the berries were soggy, but there is a vast difference between fresh and frozen soggy.    

        Our farmhouse strawberry shortcake was not like any of those anemic-looking store-bought cakes or biscuits garnished with a few berries.   My mother would start with a golden cake mix, (never white), baked in a long glass pan, and then crush a big bowl of berries (leaving some whole) with a bit of water using a potato masher, adding sugar to taste.  

When it was served you would cut your own size of cake, crumble it up, and then the bowl was passed around with a big spoon and you would ladle on a generous portion, certainly enough to make the cake soggy and wet with berries and juice.  Whipped cream was optional.   I still make my strawberry shortcake this way.   Guests who were not used to this old-fashioned version might find it a bit odd but in retrospect it was more like a trifle.

     I had a wonderful homemade strawberry trifle last week at a church dinner and nothing beats homemade, but if you want a quick alternative just layer the leftover cake and berries with store-bought vanilla pudding cups (instead of custard) and garnish with whipped cream (from a can but scratch would be divine).    It makes a nice easy desert plus it gives me an excuse to use my Downton Abbey thrift shop crystal goblets. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry Trifle

I made a non-alcoholic and an alcoholic version, adding some brandy to the bottom layer of cake to make it soggy, and it was very good indeed.  

Strawberry Jam

      Last summer I made strawberry freezer jam for the first time (as part of my Jamfest frenzy), and into the freezer it went, where it still resides and will soon be thrown out……it must be genetic!    

       I am trying to be more conscious of food wastage, as studies show we throw out a quarter of the food we buy, but a fresh strawberry is such a wonderful thing and the season so short I think we can be forgiven for being extravagant in our stock-piling.  StrawberriesIs there really any comparison between a fresh picked berry and those berries the grocery stores pass off as the real thing the rest of the year – tart, tasteless and hard and pulpy inside to withstand shipping.        

      Still on the rare occasion I need jam for scones I can easily buy a good brand of strawberry-rhubarb jam from my friend’s shop.  strawberry rhubarb jam

       I did however make a fresh stewed strawberry-rhubarb preserve this year,Strawberry-rhubarb compote

equal cups of strawberries and rhubarb, with a tiny bit of water plus sugar to  taste, cooked down to a soft texture on medium heat, which I keep in the fridge and mix with vanilla Greek yogurt, because with all the varieties of yogurt available why don’t they make a strawberry-rhubarb flavor.   

Literary postscript:  Jane Austen’s Emma wherein Mr. Knightley has issued an invitation to Donwell Abbey, “Come and eat my strawberries: they are ripening fast.”…..”Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. — “The best fruit in England — every body’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one’s self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.”

My sentiments exactly.   34 C today or 40 with the Humidex….Strawberry Field

 

 

 

The Potager

garden square

        A potager is a French term for a kitchen garden.    Because of my intention to take a break from all things floral, (see the Danger Zone blog), I decided my gardening project for this year would be a vegetable garden.  Flowers are pretty to look at but hopefully this will be a more productive endeavor, with the end result being healthier meals to enjoy plus the added fun of growing my own food.   Who doesn’t like the convenience of a salad freshly picked from their own garden? 

salad on plate

Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette

             My first foray into vegetable gardening was last summer as I had bought a raised garden bed and started with some romaine lettuce and two strawberry plants, lettuce and strawberry plants

 

plus twelve tomato plants, obviously way too many for such a small space, as a Tomato Jungle (see Sept blog) quickly ensued. 

tomato jungleSo needing more space, last fall I bought three more raised garden beds at the New England Arbor Charity sale (75% off, $25 each) and after dumping seventy bags of $1 dirt and compost into them, they were the regular price.  Never underestimate how much dirt a 4X4 square can hold, or how quickly it can settle.  garden squares and lilacs I placed them in the sunniest spot in my yard, but the aroma of lilacs in the back corner is an added perk. 

               I am not completely unfamiliar with gardens.   Growing up on a farm (the homeplace), we always had a large vegetable garden.   It was a way of life back then, as anyone whoever spent the hot summer months canning and preserving can testify, plus it was a healthy and cheap way to feed a family.  The farm garden was always planted in the cornfield closest to the house for easy access, spread out among the rows of corn, so as not to waste precious corn acreage.   It was never planted until the first of June when the danger of a late frost was over.   Sometimes we would help my dad plant it, he dug the holes, and we put the seeds in and covered them up with dirt, but other than that I don’t remember it being any work, it just grew.   We didn’t weed or water it as it was in the cornfield, mother nature did the rest.    It had the usual garden staples, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow beans, sweet corn, squash plus pumpkins for Halloween.    The beans and tomatoes were canned, and my mother made dill pickles with the cucumbers.   Many a hot August day, in the years before air conditioning, I would wake and go downstairs to find rows of inverted mason jars covered with tea towels on the kitchen counter-top, as my mom would have been up early to can in the cool of the morning.  Later they would be moved to pantry shelves in the basement.   I don’t remember eating the canned goods, (as a child I was a picky eater), but I  recall my parents having the stewed tomatoes with onions and a fried steak, and we would always have the sweet corn in August, slathered with butter.  So, I had great ambitions for my little white squares and visions of a bountiful harvest. 

Garden squares

       Last year I had bought two ever-bearing strawberry plants and had berries right up until October, (what a wonderful idea, why didn’t someone think of that sooner), that is if the birds didn’t get them first.   So this year I bought two more, but covered them up with garden netting.   A few days ago, a big black ugly starling lured by the sight of all those green berries, managed to get under the netting, and in a mad flapping panic tried to get out through the chicken wire.   I undid the top netting, but the stupid bird still couldn’t find it’s way out, so I turned the garden hose on it and sprayed it (gently, on shower not jet) towards the opening.   Bet it doesn’t try that again!   (I could understand a little brown sparrow or a hummingbird getting in but a starling the size of a crow?  It must have been part of the Cirque du Soleil acrobat team).  

 Into the same bed, went some romaine and red leaf lettuce.  Lately I have been buying red leaf lettuce at the grocery store, but it is also nice to mix the two.  The romaine I grew last summer was the best I had ever tasted, or maybe it just seemed that way as I grew it myself.    Because I had these in early before the holiday weekend, they are almost ready for picking. lettuceHopefully, they will regrow after, but I intend to fill in two of the other squares with some more in a few weeks to stagger the crop. 

Into the second square went the tomato plants, big fat Beefsteak for sandwiches and smaller Roma for salads.   I gave up on those tasteless little cherry tomatoes, you can buy those year round in the store, but a big fat home-grown tomato has a distinctive taste and aroma and is a truly wonderful thing.Tomatoes

Into the third square went two rows of carrots, because they are good for your eyesight, one orange, and one multi-coloured.   I imagine they will look pretty curled on a salad like in the food magazines.  carrots

I am hoping these bunnies aren’t high jump Olympic champions in fence hopping. 

bunny and garden square

Somebunny is waiting for me to plant the carrots.

Also, into that square went three seed potatoes, barely breaking ground now but at least they made it. Potato Plant  My dad never grew potatoes, perhaps lingering ancestral memories of the  Irish potato famine, so I have no experience with growing potatoes.  Maybe I will get enough for a potato salad?  

Into the fourth square went my Acorn squash for Thanksgiving, (not butternut as most people prefer), plus one cucumber plant designed for small gardens, so hopefully it won’t sprawl too much.

I did not plant any radishes, because my memories of the farm were the radishes were always way too hot and/or tough depending on the rainfall, nor butter beans as you can buy those in the store cheap and they are often tough as well.   My mother often planted gladioli and zinnias in her farm garden, but I have had zero luck with zinnias, although I do have glads planted along the back fence.   What I planted seemed like enough for a first-time endeavor – I am looking forward to the harvest.   (Next week I will tell you about a new way to cook all your nutritious produce, in my blog, Under Pressure, Instant-Pot for Beginners).  

Lately, I have been neglecting my book recommends.   This book, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, plus his first book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma really changed how I think about food and eating.   Perhaps a bit out of date now, with the current popularity of the high protein Paleo diets, but it made me really stop and think twice before eating any processed food.   Much better to eat food in as natural a state as possible, and for those who don’t want to grow their own food, the farmer’s markets are now open!   

  In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.