Learning curves

Last summer slugs decimated the strawberry harvest from my garden. This year I was prepared. Or so I thought. I had a bag of diatomaceous earth stand by, and an old salt shaker to spread it around the plants. But there were no slugs. Instead, chipmunks discovered the strawberry patch and took a bite out of every single ripe strawberry. Continue reading

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Summer bliss, bumps notwithstanding

In the winter, there are days we get stuck on our hilltop. With the Internet working and the pantry stocked, we are fully operational but cabin fever hits easily. Once, after three days, my husband and I decided to hike to the post office to get our mail. Halfway, he wisely turned around with our dog. He did not want to risk an injury on the icy roads, and the poor skinny dog was shaking terribly from the cold (Vizslas don’t have undercoats). I moved on and walked the four miles to the post office and back. Until that day, I had no idea what shin splints are. The next day, I knew.

Winter can be dreadful but then comes summer, and all is forgotten. Every year it hits me again how beautiful this area is. I have biked and driven on those country roads a thousand times, yet every year I find it breathtakingly beautiful: the rolling hills where farm fields alternate with wooded areas, the many small creeks, the tidy farms with their red barns and corn storage bins, and happy cows.

Sure, I moan and groan like everybody else when the temperature reaches 95 degrees and it is so humid that you have to store bread in the fridge so it doesn’t mold. And then all those itchy bumps from insect bites… I get stung even through clothing. This year is particularly bad, maybe because the winter was so mild.

I remember sitting in a sub-zero air-conditioned office in New York City on a hot summer day and dreaming of being in the country. Now I am in the country, and I am fully enjoying it – despite the bugs.

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

During strawberry season, I tossed all the not-so-pretty strawberries from the garden in the freezer for jam. After making jam last week I had some leftover strawberries so I made a variation of my Berry Frozen Yogurt.

I like cooking the strawberry puree first  – it gives the frozen yogurt more flavor, and the strawberry puree keeps longer if you don’t use it right away. But you can also use the raw puree and add the whole amount of sugar at once.

1½ cups strawberry puree, passed through a food mill

1 cup sugar

2 cups sour cream

½ cup heavy cream

1. Put the strawberry puree in a small saucepan with ½ cup sugar. Bring to a quick boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool. Chill thoroughly.

2. In a bowl mix the chilled strawberry puree with all remaining ingredients well with a wire whisk until the sugar dissolves.

3. Process the frozen yogurt in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

4. Fill frozen yogurt in plastic containers with tight lids and place in the freezer until solidly frozen. To soften, remove from the freezer 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Strawberry mission accomplished

Finally, after taking all sorts of measures to protect strawberries against critters, there are enough strawberries from the garden to make Rote Grütze, the German red berry dessert that was my favorite as a child. The recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany.

Rote Grütze can be served with vanilla sauce, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, liquid heavy cream, or plain milk. My favorite has always been vanilla sauce made from scratch – lots of it, therefore I often double the amounts.

 

Two anniversaries

After I moved from New York City to this lovely hilltop in Pennsylvania where my husband lived with his two young children, it took me a few years to get the gardening bug. I was just too busy learning to become a parent, although I felt from the beginning that with all that space around us (the storage room being as big as my bedroom was in the city), not growing your own food would be a shame.

The first summer, I did put in a couple of basil plants. I remember taking large bunches of it to the office, the scent filling the room, and my coworkers marveling about it (thankfully, the days of commuting are long over).

I started the garden in 2004, a year when our family was facing a serious health issue. That first-year garden, as tentative and modest as it may seem to me from today’s perspective, helped me keep my sanity. Gardening, whether for food or for beauty, has been my outlet ever since.

To celebrate my 9th gardening season, as well as our wedding anniversary today, I cannot think of a more befitting food than homegrown strawberries. Do I need to say that the critters seem to leave most of the strawberries alone now? They do!

Mini Strawberry Vacherins

I have made Vacherin quite a few times before but usually as one large cake. Even though it vanishes quickly so appearance really does not matter that much, after cutting the meringue does not look half as pretty. This time, I made four small Vacherins.

The meringue can be made one day ahead and stored in a dry place.

Meringue:

¼ cup ground hazelnuts

¼ cup ground walnuts

6 large egg whites

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

½ cup superfine sugar

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Topping:

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar, or 2 tablespoons sugar + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sliced strawberries

1. Lightly toast the hazelnuts and the walnuts in a non-greased pan. Make sure there are no larger pieces in the mix, as they will clog the pastry tip (speaking from experience here). Set aside to cool.

2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a food-grade pencil, draw 12 circles with a 3.5-inch diameter, leaving at least ½ inch between them.

3. Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar in a large bowl at medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed and gradually add the superfine sugar, then the confectioners’ sugar. Continue beating until the mixture is stiff and glossy. Fold in the nuts.

4. Place a pastry bag with a plain tip in a large tall glass. Fill the bag with the batter in three batches in order not to overfill. Pipe thick circles onto the prepared baking sheets, starting on the outside and working your way inside in a spiral until the circle is filled. Even out the surface with a knife if necessary.

5. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Place the baking sheet on the 2nd and 4th shelf of the oven and bake for 3 hours, or until the meringue is totally dry to the touch and crisp but not colored. Leave the baking sheets in the oven with the doors closed until it has completely cooled down.

6. Take the baking sheets out of the oven. Gently remove the meringue circles from the parchment. Place on a cake rack.

7. Whip the heavy cream with the vanilla sugar. Spread half of it on four meringue circles and arrange sliced strawberries on top. Place a second meringue circle on each and repeat with the remaining cream and strawberries. Place the last meringue circles on top. Serve right away, or refrigerate for a few hours but serve the same day.

Makes 4 to 6 servings