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.
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.
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.
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.