Friday, July 3, 2009

Strawberries and Hot Spice

We're winding up the second week of a weather phenomenon Marike calls "fogstorms": fog so thick and wet that it beads every surface with moisture, spatters the windows, rolls down the gutters. It is twilight all day long, blank damp greyness. Everyone is depressed. It is as if we've all suddenly been striken blind. There's no escape from the looming gloomy gloaming, the isolation, the blankness. We light candles at breakfast, candles at lunch, candles at dinner, a fire at night. We play music, make up goofy dances, force ourselves to go for walks. Our shoes are never dry. In such a season one craves fine sharp sunshiny tastes, exquisite surprises, anything that will break through the batting that smothers us. Enter: the spicy strawberry!

Last week, already bored with the fog, I experimented with making a ginger syrup I read about on composer Nico Muhly's blog. Usually such syrups are added to cocktails to juice them up--drinking is of course a time-honoured Maritime solution to bad weather....or anything really. Then I realized I could candy ginger at the same time--AND that I could use the syrup in all kinds of other ways as well: to flavour salmon filets, salsas, strawberries, ice get the picture. So--

Double Recipe for Ginger Spicy Syrup and Candied Ginger

2.5 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 whole ancho peppers
a chunk of ginger root the size of your hand or larger
2 teaspoons anise seeds (star anise would surely work too, but more than 1 tsp!)
2 tsps black pepper corns
6-8 whole cloves
1 tablespoon allspice berries

1. If you're making candied ginger with this recipe, then peel the ginger and slice thinly. If not, don't bother to peel it, just chop it up and drop it in a heavy saucepan.

2. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring the contents of the pot to a boil. Let boil vigorously, stirring frequently, until the liquid is syrupy--usually a reduction to a quarter or less of its volume. You may have to modulate the heat to prevent the mixture from burning or sticking.

3. When your syrup has reached a suitable consistency (if you're using a candy thermometer, it will get above boil but below "jelly"), turn off the heat. Let sit overnight, so that the flavours steep and the ginger soaks up some sugar.

4. The next day, bring quickly to a boil, then turn off the heat. Once the syrup has cooled a bit, strain it through a tight-meshed sieve--syrup will store well in the fridge in a glass jar.

5. If you want a bit more syrup and/or candied ginger, return the berries/spices/ginger mess to the saucepan. Add, again, 2.5 cups of water and 1 cup of sugar and, again, bring to a vigorous boil. Reduce, again, until the liquid is a nice thick syrup and the ginger is soft and sweet and not too chewy or fibrous. If it is, repeat steps 3-5 again. When everything seems to your taste, strain the syrup into your glass jar and pick out the ginger pieces--a wide-mouthed glass jar will work well to store them, too. Discard the rest of the spices--mine go right into the compost bin.

The day my syrup was done, Elisabeth came home with an enormous salmon filet. I thought the syrup might help make a tasty marinade/sauce for the fish, which it did.

Marinade and Sauce for Barbecued Salmon
2-3 T. spicy ginger syrup
2 T olive oil 1 T mustard (Dijon, of course!)
2 cloves of garlic finely minced with 1/2 of a seeded, reconstituted chipotle pepper
1/4 c. + orange juice or orange and lemon juice mixed
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds, finely ground

1. Mix ingredients together (add more orange or lemon juice if you want more liquid). Brush over salmon filet.

2. Marike started to cook our salmon on a wetted cedar plank--kept it there until it seized. Then she slipped the fish onto the grill skin side down and cooked it, basting it with the sauce, for 7 minutes or so--until it was quite hot through, but still very pink inside. Then she flipped it over to grill the top for a minute or so.

3. Serve with sauce and extra lemon. A pinch of salt perhaps.

We ate our salmon with grilled asparagus (olive oil salt pepper wrap them in foil and put them on the grill, flip them). Desert was fresh strawberries with a drizzle of syrup, candied ginger and dark dark chocolate. Mmm. By the time we were finished it was dark and we'd forgotten the fog.

But the fog had not forgotten us. It stayed and greyed and greyed and stayed. Our chins sank, so too our spirits--it's like being buried alive, nuclear winter. Here we are in the lightest brightest time of the year in the north and we are smothered in gloom. I decided I'd start to photograph small things--if you get close enough to the wild strawberries (half the size of your smallest thumbnail) you can capture all sorts of colours. Myopia, in such weather, is perhaps a blessing.

Just before Canada Day (July 1), Marike and Elisabeth came home from a trip to the hardware store with a flat of strawberries. Someone had been selling berries, picked near Truro, at the side of the road. Suddenly we had a dozen quarts or more, so we all got busy.

Elisabeth washed and stemmed several quarts then spread the berries on cookie sheets, covered them in wax paper and put them in the freezer. As soon as they were frozen she packed the berries in bags--these we'll pull out later or throw into smoothies or crisps or pies.

Then Marike and I started ice cream production. Here's Marike's recipe, which was really her mother, Marguerite's:

Marguerite's Easy No Machine Strawberry Ice Cream
1.5 litres (3 pints) of heavy cream
2 tsp. vanilla
3-4 quarts of strawberries
1 cup sugar (or more if you crave sweetness)
optional: nutmeg, black pepper

1. Whip the cream and vanilla together in a large bowl. If you like nutmeg, grate some in; it's always good with cream. (Besides, in large enough quanitites, it's a hallucinogin--a detail that can feel as if it's worth contemplating when you can't SEE anything in the external world...)

2. Using a cuisinart or similar implement, grind up the strawberries. No need to puree them--they should hover between liquid and solid with many elements of each. Add the sugar. You can add lots of ground black pepper here if you like, too.

3. Mix whipped cream and berries together in a large bowl. Spoon into smaller containers with tight lids & wide mouths. Be sure to leave a bit of space for the mixture to expand when it freezes. Freeze.

4. Bcause you haven't used an ice cream maker, your ice cream will be very hard (but it was also really easy, wasn't it?) You might want to take it out of the freezer for 10 minutes so that it can soften before you try to spoon it out.

We'd frozen, in one fashion or another, half of our berries, but there were still half a dozen quarts to contend with. Elisabeth made straberry jam (add water and sugar and boil; can); we had sliced strawberries on toast with anise flavoured powdered sugar (a Dutch treat, called Gestampte muisjes or, in our house, because muisjes souds a bit like "mouses--moushes--"stamped mice"). We contemplated strawberry soup (with my ginger syrup of course, and cream), strawberry souffle, strawberries on salad with goat's feta and pepper, and, of course, strawberry shortcake--which is really just strawberries on fancied up biscuits. Here's my latest greatest modification:

Strawberry Shortcake with Spicy Ginger Syrup Sauce and Whipped Cream
1 scant cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 scant cup whole wheat flour
2T granulated sugar
1T baking powder
4 T (that's 1/8 of a pound or half a stick) sweet butter (chilled)
3/4 to 1 cup light cream
optional 1/4 cup ground roasted almonds or pecans
1 qt of stemmed sliced strawberries, sprinkled with sugar
1 c. heavy cream whipped with vanilla and nutmeg
spicy ginger syrup sauce

Preheat the oven to 450 F.

1. Using a cuisinart or similar implement with a sharp blade, blend together dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, ground nuts if you're using them).

2. Cut butter into cubes and drop it into the flour mixture. Pulse it in (don't over-mix)--you're looking for a coarse cornmeal-like texture here.

3. Add 1/2 c. cream. Mix. With machine running, add remaining 1/4 cup--or more, as necessary to create a fairly thick well-mixed batter.

4. Spoon the batter in large spoonfuls onto a buttered cookie sheet. Flatten each spoonful. You should have about 9 biscuits staggered across your sheet.

5. Bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. Your shortcakes should be puffed up and just a little bit browned.

6. Let cool on a rack.

7. To serve, slice the shortcakes in half. Pour syrup over each half. Cover in strawberries. Top with cream. Keep a pitcher of syrup nearby to add as necessary. If you're feeling really extravagant, shave dark chocolate over each serving.

Now, if only the fog would lift!

Nova Scotia strawberries
Ginger Spicy Syrup
Wild strawberries on stones, in the grass


  1. yummmmmmm - this cheered me up just reading it - thank you.

  2. whoo hoo! That's the whole point. Woke up last night to WIND, now thunder, stuff moving around up there amen. Maybe we can all stop moulding.

  3. Miam ! adding Spicy Ginger Syrup Sauce to the shortbread gives it such a delicate flavor , I would really give 5 stars to this this recipe ! and I would say in French : " Recette hors du commun " .