Food Buzz

Because maybe you do care what I had for lunch...

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Charmed by strawberries

Food Buzz was kind enough to invite me to a delightful event Tuesday, sponsored by the California Strawberry Commission, at SoHo's Culinary Loft. Top Chef finalist Chris "CJ" Jacobsen created two strawberry recipes and led a cooking demonstration for a Top Berry Luncheon.

I wish I'd taken more pictures but my camera was acting up -- I loved the table centerpieces of grass planters heavily-laden with strawberries. You can see them here. Don't you love a centerpiece you can eat?

The event began with a tasting. We were each given individual dishes with strawberries, balsamic vinegar, salt, radicchio, and powdered kombu (a seaweed used in Japanese cooking -- mmm, umami). We dipped the berries into each ingredient, experiencing new taste sensations. I'd had strawberries with balsamic before, and I know what salt can do with fruit. The radicchio didn't do much for me. But I loved the kombu and so did everyone else at my table. When CJ came by (and he's adorable, by the way), it was all we wanted to talk about. CJ says aside from using it as a condiment you can combine it with miso paste for a quick and easy miso soup.*

Back to the berries, CJ showed us how to make pan seared lamb chop with hazelnuts, fresh strawberries, and strawberry gastrique. (I'll post the recipe in the comments section -- by the way, loved seeing the can of Red Bull in the background, hee hee). It was fantastic, not least because the lamb was nice and rare but well caramelized on the surface. Clearly this was an inducement to try cooking with strawberries in new, inventive ways -- thereby raising consumption of strawberries. At any rate, it's an interesting idea. How many savory dishes (besides salads) have you ever made with strawberries? I may try experimenting myself. For dessert we had a goat cheese tart with tea poached strawberries.

At the luncheon I met fellow blogger Grace of Grace is Full. Isn't that the best blog name ever? It just makes you think of a world and a belly full of joy. I also sat with a journalist from Parade who told me about this crazy idea of making muffins with equal parts ice cream and self-rising flour. She was delightful, too.

We got to hear from two strawberry farmers, Cecil Martinez and Erik Jertberg, and this was the most interesting part for me. They are clearly passionate about their crops and wanted to emphasize that they run multi-generational family farms, not giant corporate factory farms. I think they're responding to the current public suspicion of corporate farming (tomatoes anyone?). Martinez talked about terroir and how California's climate is perfect for growing strawberries.**

Jertberg spoke to the issue of organic farming. He has both conventional and organic fields, but he does integrate some organic methods into his conventional fields. He says it takes a long time to convert a conventional field into an organic field, and the risks are high. A fellow farmer he knows had a phenomenal year with organics one year, and then the following year lost his entire crops to an uncontrollable pest. You have a lot less control with organic crops. I wonder if technology has a place in organic farming?

Regardless, I think this would be a more appropriate place for government subsidies; helping out organic farmers when the bad bugs hit. I believe there was some increased funding for specialty crops in the most recent farm bill, but still not enough, or I wouldn't have seen that pained look on Jertberg's face when he answered my questions about the potential profits and risks of organic farming. Currently organics comprise only 5-6% of the American strawberry market.

At the end we were given copies of the Top Chef Cookbook and some strawberry tongs which I believe you can use to remove the leaves and stem from the berries. All in all it was pretty darn sweet.

*I've got to get my hands on some powdered kombu -- or make some of my own with my coffee grinder. In traditional Japanese cooking you steep kombu in water briefly before adding fish flakes for the standard stock called dashi. But if you allow the water to boil or leave the kombu in too long the broth will be bitter. Can this be avoided using the powdered kombu? CJ says no, but I want to find out for myself. Am I getting too geeky and technical here? Anyone else have experience with powdered kombu?

**And since I'm getting geeky here, this is one thing I struggle with as a would-be locavore. The local strawberries here can be scrumptious under the best conditions (we have sea air, too). But this years' have been really tart so far and I just haven't been able to fork over $5, $6 again for another basket. I'll stay away from the monster berries and prefer to eat berries in the spring and summer only, but damned if those California berries at the Coop aren't kicking ass this year. I'll try the local berries again later this summer. Maybe they'll get sweeter.


Margo, darling said...

You're not kidding about the California berries. I just had a bowl of cereal loaded with them. It's been a few years since they've been this consistently good. Now I feel guilty about the strawberries *and* the indefensible, obviously-not-local bananas I've been enjoying this morning.

Adriana Velez said...

No guilt!

Jasper couldn't live without a steady supply of bananas every single day.

grace said...

Yay! Love this post! I'm so glad to have met you -- thanks for the shout out! I emailed our "bosses" at Foodbuzz and told them I met you and how great it was. They were very pleased to roll out this new program. I'll see you at the next one! I feel HORRIBLE that I had to leave right as Jertberg started to speak (had to get back to work)!

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Interesting article. Here's what I want to know: Did anyone address the fact that strawberries are grown for girth and not for flavor? I find strawberries to be a disappointing fruit. They're HUGE, which makes them a draw visually, but when you bite into them, they're tasteless. There's only one place I've found that grows strawberries that are smaller and LOADED with flavor and that's Lucas Valley Farms in Marin County, California. Their strawberries are so sweet, they don't need sugar to help them along. I haven't really bothered with locavore here because the results have been inconsistent. Sort of sweet one week, tart or flavorless the next. What gives?

Adriana Velez said...

Tewksbury, the farmers actually addressed this. Apparently researchers at UC Davis have come up with a variety that's huge and very sweet. They cut the berries in half and served them with melted chocolate inside at a tasting...

Anyway, I'm a little skeptical. I like those little old-timey strawberries, best.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

A: Interesting. I think I'm with you, though: small and old-timey would be my preference. I read an article in Smithsonian or heard a segment on NPR several years ago (it's so easy to mix those two up... not... but obviously I have) about researchers in California and Florida who are trying to restore strawberries to their former, musky, sweet glory. Strawberries have become so hybridized, they're almost pointless.

Thanks for the additional information. The idea of engineered fruit always warms my wee little Grinch heart.

Sophie said...

We'd like to invite you to participate in our July berry recipe contest. All competitors will be placed on our blogroll, and the winner will receive a fun prize! Please email me,, if you're interested. Feel free to check out our blog for more details. (Click on my name in the message header link to visit our blog. :)