Eat them by the bowlful or get creative — Katie Shapiro looks at how chefs in our community are using this seasonal indulgence.
The year 2013 was the international year of strawberries. At least, it was for me — it certainly isn’t an official designation. It was the year my strawberry season lasted about nine months, and I greedily gobbled it up.
Taking a year off from my undergrad in the fall of 2012 to teach in Spain, I was assigned a job in the small Andalusian city of Huelva in the southwest corner of the country. The guidebooks generally pass over Huelva, so tourists tend to miss it too. I fell in love with it, and as it turned out, Huelva does have several claims to fame: Christopher Columbus set sail from the region, and it’s home to roughly 90 percent of Spain’s strawberry production.
Over there, January is the season for strawberries, and I was thrilled to score a kilogram for just a euro or two. It was even more thrilling to discover that this price was not out of the ordinary at the fruterías around town.
As I traipsed through Europe that summer, I found that every region was proud of its local strawberries and learned how they were enjoyed. Strawberry gazpacho in southern Spain, strawberry lemonade stands in a square in Budapest, gelato in Cinque Terre, or served with a dollop of sour cream and sugar in Warsaw — I may have consumed my weight in strawberries.
By the time I arrived back in Ottawa, the berries were at their peak and my strawberry gorging continued.
Because our strawberry season is not as long as those overseas, we tend to enjoy the berries fiercely. Between barbecues, picnics, and strawberry socials, there is no shortage of excuses to highlight the fruit.
When I was growing up in the west end of Ottawa, my family did most of our berry picking at the Richmond Nursery. Its strawberry fields began as George’s Berry Patch in 1960. In the mid-1970s, Claudia Rofner, co-owner of the nursery with her husband, George, gave birth to their second child at the beginning of strawberry season. When they were unable to keep up with customer demand for the already picked strawberries they usually sold, a sympathetic customer offered to go pick their own. It soon became a popular activity. Peter Rofner — the baby who spurred the pick-your-own option — is now in charge of strawberry operations, and each year he and his team plant up to five strawberry varieties for picking, in addition to one or two experimental varieties.
Though they’ve never done a full head count of strawberry pickers, Rofner estimates that he has seen almost 80 cars in the parking lot at peak times — this despite naysayers who insisted that strawberries wouldn’t be a viable crop in Ottawa when his father planted the first berries in 1960. Their success makes the Rofner family’s business the longest continuously operating strawberry fields in the Ottawa Valley.
It can be an exercise in willpower for a kid to pick strawberries without the lion’s share ending up in the stomach. Berry-stained fingers are a summery celebration. The first strawberries of the season are for eating unaccompanied and unadorned, simply enjoying them as they are. They’re a dessert on their own — right from the farm or the market and by the bowlful.
A simple and sophisticated way to elevate fresh strawberries is with a drizzle of quality balsamic vinegar or olive oil. The Unrefined Olive, located in the Glebe and in Kanata, has a plethora of potential pairings for fresh strawberries. Owner Elizabeth Kilvert describes the classic dessert as a “simple” combo of strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and freshly cracked black pepper. But with more than 20 balsamic vinegars to choose from (a light white balsamic or an espresso balsamic vinegar, maybe even a Thai basil olive oil?), finding your favourite version of the classic can be complicated. Guided by an enthusiastic Kilvert, I landed on a dark chocolate balsamic vinegar, which I drizzled on roasted strawberries atop polenta toasts with goat cheese and arugula: a simple, delicious combination that created a dish complex with sweet and savoury notes.
In the summertime, chef Briana Kim, owner of Café My House in Hintonburg, gets about 90 percent of her ingredients from the nearby Parkdale Market. While some vegan dishes require a great deal of prep work, Kim’s Strawberry & Beet Cashew Ice Cream is easily thrown together and makes a cool treat for warm weather.
A perennial crowd-pleaser (and conveniently portable), tarts have long been a staple of summer fruit desserts. Highlighting bright berries in a shortbread-like crust, this strawberry tart has been a summertime go-to in my family for as long as I can remember.
At the height of berry season, you’d be wise to make a few tarts and stash one or two away in the freezer. Then you can rest easy, knowing that as the strawberry season speeds by, you’ll have extended your summer by a tart or two.
For the pastry:
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup soft butter
- 2 egg whites
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For the filling:
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 cups fresh strawberries (frozen berries work well if fresh are not available)
- 1 cup fresh blueberries
For the topping:
- 1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
- 2 teaspoon icing sugar
Make the dough: In a food processor or bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, butter, egg whites, and vanilla; mix well. Press onto bottom of 11-inch flan pan. If using the optional chocolate ganache or lemon curd, spread over base.*
Make the filling: In a bowl, combine sugar and flour; toss with berries. Spoon over the dough. Bake in 350℉ (180℃) oven for 60 to 70 minutes or until top is bubbling and dough is golden. Let cool.
For topping: Arrange berries decoratively over flan. Sift icing sugar over top.
*Note: This recipe is easily doubled, and well-wrapped tarts freeze well. Dough may be made a day or two ahead and covered with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerated.
Any combination of berries can be used to reach four cups of berries in total (for example, 2 cups of raspberries and 2 cups of strawberries or 1 cup each of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, etc).
The dough bakes a bit like a shortbread cookie, so the tart works wonderfully with a zesty lemon curd or a dark chocolate ganache (see following recipes).
Makes approximately one cup
- 4 egg yolks
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind (zest from one lemon)
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- ¼ cup cold butter, cubed
In a heatproof bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, lemon rind, and lemon juice; set over saucepan of simmering water. Cook, stirring, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in butter, one cube at a time, until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve into an airtight container. Place plastic wrap directly on surface of the curd. Refrigerate until cold and thick enough to mound firmly on spoon, about 2 hours. It can also be refrigerated in an airtight container for a couple of days.
- 8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup heavy cream
Coarsely chop chocolate, and place in a bowl with a pinch of salt.
Over medium heat, bring cream to a boil, then immediately remove from heat. Pour over chopped chocolate and salt, and let stand about 10 minutes. Whisk until ganache is shiny and smooth. Let cool completely before spreading over dough.
Roasted Strawberries on Polenta Toasts With The Unrefined Olive’s Balsamic Vinegar
Serves 4–6 as an appetizer
- polenta toasts
- roasted strawberries
- ½ cup soft goat cheese
- handful arugula leaves
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar of choice (dark chocolate or espresso balsamic vinegars from The Unrefined Olive are highly recommended)
For the polenta toasts:
- 3 cups water
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Lightly oil an 8-inch-square glass or ceramic cooking tray. Bring the 3 cups of water and pinch of salt to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Slowly add the cornmeal while stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook approximately 20 minutes, continuing to stir frequently. Once polenta has thickened, stir in olive oil. Evenly spread polenta on prepared cooking tray. Place plastic wrap directly onto polenta, and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Preheat oven to 425℉. Invert polenta onto a cutting board, and cut into 16 squares. Place squares on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until the squares look crispy and golden, flipping them halfway through baking time. Let squares cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.
For the roasted strawberries:
- 1 cup strawberries, hulled
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350℉. Cut strawberries in half (or in quarters if berries are large), and place in mixing bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together maple syrup, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour maple mixture over berries, and gently stir so that all berries are equally coated. Arrange berries in single layer on baking sheet, and roast 20 to 25 minutes (do not let berry juices burn).
Spread a layer of goat cheese on each polenta toast. Top with arugula, roasted strawberries, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
Strawberry & Beet Cashew Ice Cream, from chef Briana Kim
- 2 cups red beets, peeled and diced
- 2 cups strawberries
- 2 cups cashews, soaked in water overnight
- 1½ cups coconut milk
- ½ cup maple syrup or raw sugar
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice the beets and strawberries. If you don’t have a juicer, blend the beets with ½ to 1 cup water in a blender and strain. Blend the strawberries with ¼ cup water and strain. This should yield approximately 1 cup of beet juice and 1 cup of strawberry juice. Combine the beet and strawberry juices in a saucepan over low heat and reduce to half volume. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain the soaked cashews and set aside. In another saucepan, combine coconut milk and sugar or maple syrup and simmer over low heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and allow to cool. In a blender, blend beet and strawberry reduction, cashew nuts, coconut milk mixture, coconut oil, lemon juice, and vanilla until smooth. Transfer to a container and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight for best results. Freeze according to your ice cream machine’s directions. Enjoy!
Katie Shapiro is a writer and photographer enamoured with all things local, playing with her food, and blogging about it on Kate’s Plate.