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Feature Mon Jun 18 2007
A week ago, in the start of the month-long strawberry season, I set out with two friends, Rose and Meleah, on a very short road trip to pick some. Later, I came home with some 17 pounds and made a tart with 7 cups of them. I took the almond tart shell from The Millennium Cookbook, from the famed fine dining and all-vegan restaurant in San Francisco, rewriting the recipe in my own words below. The book's suggested filling, red wine and pear cream, provided some inspiration for my strawberry cream filling. I attribute the key to Meleah, who showed me by pancake-example how lovely balsamic vinegar enhances strawberries when cooked together for a sauce. Freshly sliced strawberries and shavings from a bar of extra dark chocolate finish the tart.
Our strawberries came from Garwood U-Pick and Farm Market in LaPorte, Indiana, about 70 miles down an expansive highway from downtown Chicago. My strawberry picking companions and I hopped aboard a large covered wooden trailer with rows of bench seats and a tractor pulled us into the field. There's a lot of squatting in the picking. The plants grow low and the berries seem to hide under the green leaves. At first, the berries were all quite small, not much larger than a marble. The season had already been going since June 1 at this farm, 8 days before, and we thought perhaps they had been picked over. Rose, the originator of this great expedition, told me that last year seemed better. As we walked farther in, along the straw between long rows of berries, we found larger berries. Many were very good and juicy, but some hadn't been picked in time to avoid rotting. An hour or so later, I had pounds of the tastiest strawberries I can ever remember tasting. I gave some to friends and froze the rest. First came stemming, then washing, drying, and laying them out on a sheet pan in the freezer so each would harden separately. I transferred them to large zip-tight bags a few hours later after I was sure they were hard enough already not to freeze together in a giant mess.
Almond Tart Shell
1 cup almonds
1+1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup maple syrup (cb note: I used what was left of my maple syrup and replaced the rest with agave nectar)
1/4 cup peanut oil (cb note: switched from Millennium's call for canola oil)
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grind the almonds to a fine meal. I find that a coffee grinder works best, although you must stop frequently to unload the paste-like almond meal that may otherwise jam and ruin your grinder. (I haven't been able to get a food processor to grind them as finely; they always seem to come out gritty.) Combine the almond meal with the flour and salt. In another bowl, combine the liquid ingredients, and then add to the dry. Mix well, starting with a spoon and ending with your fingers. Pat into a 9-inch tart pan, press in seven sets of holes with a fork, and bake until golden brown. Check after 20 minutes. Cool completely, and then chill.
Strawberry, Red Wine and Balsamic Cream
5 cups fresh strawberries, sliced in half if large
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
4 shakes of salt
Bring all ingredients to a simmer, and continue simmering for quite some time. The berries will first become soft and release their juices, and later the mixture will thicken as the strawberries loose shape. Stir occasionally, and as the berries become very soft, smash them with your spoon until they're no longer individually identifiable. When this stew has thickened, turn up the heat and stir constantly until it becomes so thick it would pour slowly. Cool completely, and then chill.
2 ounces from a bar of good quality dark chocolate
2 cups fresh strawberries, thinly sliced
Pour the chilled strawberry cream into the baked and chilled tart shell. Slice fresh strawberries to cover (drain for 10 minutes after slicing if watery). Dust with chocolate shavings made with a grater, planer, or by carefully scraping the edge of a knife along the top of a thick chocolate bar.