I love strawberries for their delicate sweetness: they’re pretty red morsels with a lovely fragrance and flavour. Except, somewhere along the way, I think we departed somewhat from what I remember a “real” strawberry to taste like.
I was fortunate enough to spend a week in France this northern summer. From street markets I bought punnets of strawberries that had the most delightful and intense flavours. They were very small and had tiny green seeds that lingered between my teeth, but they were incredibly delicious. They were also expensive, but I didn’t care, I was in heaven.
I recall the flavour of the strawberries I used to eat as a child, especially those I picked with my family in the hills on hot afternoons. Strawberries used to be very small with an intense flavour, and not full of water. They were very fragile. We never had them in the fridge for a week because they perished the day after my mother bought them.
I can understand that people want strawberries for longer, but once we start developing varieties and techniques just to extend seasons or for transportability, longevity and size, there is a price to pay. And that is flavour.
Your nose, as ever, is the best guide; when the perfume of the berries is so strong that it’s sweet and powerful even through the wrapping, you’re probably onto a winner. Be sure, though, to have a look at the bottom of the punnet, as there may be some mould or mushiness. Keep them in the fridge, but use them as soon as you can.
September to January is peak season, but because they’re picked at different times in farms ranging from Queensland to Tassie, strawberries are available year-round and there is surprisingly good eating to be had with winter strawberries. The peaks and troughs of quality vary significantly from year to year as well as from season to season.
My favourite ways of eating strawberries are many: lightly warmed in a crêpe with a splash of Grand Marnier and a dollop of organic cream; on a chocolate and hazelnut gâteau; in jam; or in an old-fashioned soufflé.
As an apprentice chef I was not only daunted by the task of preparing my first box of artichokes but I was also amazed at just how little there was left of each one by the time it was trimmed, and at how long I was there tearing off leaves and whittling away at the artichokes with a paring knife.
The globe artichoke is the unopened flower bud of a thistle and is closely related to the cardoon (a lesser known but equally delicious vegetable). Size does not necessarily indicate quality, but because there is just as much work involved in preparing the small ones as the large ones, with very little to show for it, I tend to choose the larger ones. Choose artichokes that are green with no browning or drying leaves, firm and heavy for their size.
What used to be a short artichoke season has been extended from April through to November with the advent of new varieties.
Freshly cooked artichokes are absolutely beautiful, quite rich in flavour, and certainly well worth the trouble of preparing them. One of my favourite ways to cook artichokes is to slice them and sauté them with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil, then finish them with lemon juice and chopped parsley. They make a beautiful accompaniment to veal – grilled or cooked in lemon and white wine sauce – or chicken fricassée. I also adore crumbed and fried artichokes as an entrée or in a soft leaf salad. You can stuff whole artichokes with a mixture of breadcrumbs, garlic, parmesan and mint and cook them, covered, in a layer of tomato sugo. The Italians really are the greatest at preparing artichokes.> And prepared in any of these ways they are delicious eaten hot or cold.
Curiously, artichokes can be difficult to match with wine, but I find a crisp neutral white wine such as a verdicchio quite good.
I was thrilled some years ago to discover white asparagus being sold here in Australia. Finally! I’m such a big fan. It has a beautiful delicate flavour and is very attractive. White asparagus has long been considered a delicacy in Europe and is especially popular in Germany, France, Belgium and Spain. White asparagus is the same species as the green but is grown without sunlight. Traditionallythat has been out in the field, covered by mounds of soil. As the spears grow, the farmers heap soil over the emerging spears so no photosynthesis can occur. Harvesting is quite specialised and labour intensive as it can only be done by hand with a special cutter. The hole is then refilled for another spear to grow. White asparagus varieties in Europe have been specially bred to have very thick stems (up to 12mm in diameter) and a mild flavour with no bitterness.
Here in Australia, we have developed ways of growing asparagus under black plastic polyhouses, which has improved harvesting methods. Most asparagus here is grown in Victoria. It’s still a young industry, and while I think Australian white asparagus doesn’t have the same fullness of flavour and thickness of the prized European variety, I am noticing availability and quality improve each year.
White asparagus can be cooked in exactly the same way as green but should be peeled first as the skin tends to be a little stringy and bitter. I find it is best cooked gently. It goes particularly well with burnt butter and poached eggs, or, as in the recipe here, with fried breadcrumbs and shavings of parmesan.
Spring really makes me feel like cooking and eating more seafood. I want grilled scallops finished with a delicate nahm jim and green mango salad, or sautéed with olive oil and tossed through angelhair pasta with a touch of garlic and chilli. I love scallops on the half shell topped with breadcrumbs mixed with garlic, parsley, extra-virgin olive oil and parmesan and then grilled. Divine. Now is an especially good time to be enjoying scallops before they start spawning and the season ends in December.
Australia’s main commercial species are the southern or commercial scallops found in the southern half of Australia, and the saucer scallops, most of which are found further north. Scallops begin their life as young larvae drifting about in the ocean before they attach themselves to seaweed or rock where they grow into their shells and feed (they are filter feeders). Eventually they bury themselves in clear sandy ocean beds. Scallops are mostly wild-harvested by dredging, but farmed scallops have also become available in recent years. In the past scallop beds have been famously overfished and each year the season varies greatly as the population levels are highly variable. The last 10 years, however, have seen real improvements with environmentally sustainable practices.
My golden rule with cooking scallops is to cook them very briefly, as when overcooked they can be quite rubbery. Depending on their size, they take just two to five minutes seared in a hot pan. It’s better to undercook than to overcook, then remove them from the heat and let them warm through. Enjoy.
Strawberries offer a hint of summer berries to come, and artichokes, white asparagus and scallops all shine in Brigitte Hafner’s spring kitchen.