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culinating :: berry interesting

a few weeks ago, i was mulling over the plight of the strawberry in our cooking culture. there are very few berries i've met and not liked in my time. i'm not fond of currants and i'm sure that someone will tell me that there's a species called stinkberries that smell like the contents of my litter pans, but as a general rule, i like berries. fresh berries are delicious on their own, of course and when it comes to desserts, i will generally opt for a fruit pie or cobbler over perennial favourite chocolate, but i also love finding ways to incorporate berries into savoury dishes, everything from adding them to a salad to using them in a sauce or glaze. pretty much every holiday dinner i prepare has some form of fruit [mostly berry] sauce involved. or at least some sort of chutney-like preparation to bring that happy berry taste to the table.

when i thought about strawberries, i realised that despite their immense popularity, they are consumed almost exclusively as a sweet: dipped in chocolate, added to ice cream, baked into cakes or pies. and i began to wonder why that was. after all, strawberries are just as good as any other kind of berry. and i've had them in salads before, but i think i've had pretty much everything in salad at one time or another. adding something to a salad doesn't qualify as incorporating it into a savoury dish in my books. incorporating something into a dish means that you're doing something to it in order to make it blend, making a new relationship out of the previously separate elements. putting things together in a salad is like gathering people in a waiting room; they're just linked by proximity. no one's coming out with a marriage proposal.



i asked my facebook friends why they thought that strawberries weren't used in this fashion and got several opinions back. most of the opinions were that it was because such a dish was pretty much guaranteed to taste disgusting. the most detailed post came from my good friend martin, who is in the process of resurrecting his fantastic food blog "hungry, smart and poor". to paraphrase, he said that, unlike a lot of berries, strawberries are fairly mild in their flavour. they lack the bright acidity of the raspberry or blackberry [which, by the way, aren't even true berries], or the profound flavour of blueberries or currants. plus, of course, they're meatier than most berries and don't do that nice dissolving thing as they're heated, meaning they won't yield a lot of juice and making their texture more akin to the flesh of tomatoes [which are actually true berries].

it was that last point that gave me an idea of how to proceed with my nefarious plan to come up with an edible strawberry main course. it occurred to me that the easiest thing to do was to treat them like their berry brother, the tomato, rather than trying to ape the abilities of false berries. [although, it behooves me to point out that strawberries aren't true berries either, if you're being particular about it.]

the fact that i've had berries in salad gave me a sort of starting point for what to incorporate. experience had taught me that strawberries work exceptionally well with cheeses, including very sharp ones like goat cheese or blue, and that they are sublime with balsamic vinegar. that gave me a hint as to what elements i could include. since martin was right about strawberries being 'softer' in flavour than other berries, i didn't want to run the risk of overwhelming them. that meant that i had to take out some ingredients that tend to get used a lot in my kitchen. i avoided garlic, ginger and onion, because any of those could easily dominate the more delicate strawberries. i thought about doing a strawberry with tomato sauce, but realised quickly that the tartness of the tomatoes would become overbearing and leave the strawberries tasting like a mistake.

i did, however, know that i wanted to try something along the lines of a pasta sauce. after all, if the texture of tomatoes works for that role, strawberries should be a decent fit.

also, i had a fresh container of cheese tortellini, which provided me with the cheesy tang i knew i wanted to include. [and by 'fresh' i mean 'not dried'. i didn't make it myself, because i'm just not that ambitious.]

i chopped up organic strawberries, probably a half pound of them. they weren't quite perfect, since it's still a little early for strawberry season here. in season would be perfect, but since strawberry season is brief, you grab what you can.

over medium heat, i sauteed them in a little olive oil and added balsamic vinegar. how much? enough to cover the bottom of the pan, but not enough to cover the strawberries. i kept stirring this to allow the balsamic to penetrate the strawberries and to evaporate so that it would come to the border of caramelization and then be turned away. when i got to that point, i added between half and three quarters of a 355ml bottle of hard cider. after all, apples have a similar mix of sweet and tart, so they're a natural complement.

i lowered the heat a little and allowed the strawberry slurry to reduce a bit. once the liquid had diminished by about a third, i added a healthy dose of basil and a little mint [both fresh] to the mix. strawberries can't compete with the heaviness of usual pasta sauce flavours, but the freshness of basil and mint align naturally. i let the herbs soften a little and kept the mixture on the heat to allow the flavours to combine.

while that was happening, i washed some dark greens. i used beet greens, but any flavourful green could do. mustard greens, sorel, anything like that. i'd skip spinach, because i think it would come out a little bland. without drying the greens, i chopped/ tore them into small, manageable pieces, dumped them in a pan, poured a little lemon juice on them and turned on the heat. [medium is as high as you want to go.

within a few minutes, the greens had wilted to a more compact size and were ready to be added to the strawberry mixture. then, after a few more minutes of allowing everything to combine, i drained the pasta that i'd been cooking but forgot to tell you about, put it back in its pot and then added the sauce.

whether its over low heat or just on a burner that's been recently shut off, i like to give pasta and sauce a few minutes to get to know each other before serving. they're in this thing together and they have to cooperate to put on a show. they need to feel comfortable around one another to be at their best.

so once again, here are the ingredients you'll need. i'm not going to get into measurements, because you can adjust them as you wish. personally, i kept the ratio of strawberries to greens about the same, but that's truly as much guidance as i can offer...

cheese tortellini [enough for however many you're serving]
strawberries [a pint box is probably a good measuring stick]
balsamic vinegar
medium size bunch of basil
small bunch of mint [the amount of mint should be less than half of the amount of basil]
about 200ml hard cider*
medium-sized bunch of beet greens or other dark greens [roughly equivalent to the strawberries in weight]
dash of lemon
salt as desired

*note :: the ciders that are available in quebec run to the sweet side of the spectrum. if you live in an area where drier, more tart ciders predominate [i'm looking at you, toronto], you may want to add a little bit of sugar. or you might not. that's your business.

and yes, i totally failed to get decent pictures of this, not that they communicate the least thing about flavour and my presentation skills are ass anyway, but i hope you enjoyed the place-filling strawberry pics nonetheless.

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