Why have I seen you more often than not
so tarted up—doused in granular glitter, softened to sweet paste,
or masquerading as a flavor to something which you are not?
This, my red friend, is ridicule.
You’re too good for that;
you have nothing to hide.
Oh it’s strawberry season again. That means we can eat fresh, sweet, maroon strawberries from the stem like there’s no tomorrow. You can’t actually do this most times of the year; and yes, a few days after harvesting, the berries do need to be preserved somehow, which is perhaps why we most often see strawberries in jams, pies, ice creams or cereal bars since they do not stay too pretty and fresh for very long.
Locally-grown strawberries, on the other hand, are a late spring/early summer-only treat. This is the type of strawberry that makes you want to write poems in the vein of Pablo Neruda for.
See how they’re red to the centers? And when you bite, and discover this, that simple thrill is coupled with the juices that run down your chin?
But their taste. And their smell! Like berries on steroids. I do think that a good strawberry is every bit deserving of the cultural icon status it has achieved—whether through artificial flavors in candy or as Strawberry Shortcake, one of my favorite dolls/characters growing up. (I mean, Lemon Meringue was the sidekick.)
Anyhoo, we’re not exactly making a strawberry shortcake today, but we are stacking fresh berries on some kind of baked good, in between a layer of dairy. Mmm.
While you can use any kind of dairy for this mission—be it creme fraiche or ricotta or labneh (or any other similarly light-tasting, unaged creamy thing hopefully with a hint of tanginess)—I found some farmer’s cheese at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket along with these strawberries at Ronnybrook Dairy’s stand. It’s a dense, buttery pressed curd of cow’s milk that the farmer told me was similar to chevre, the fresh goat’s milk cheese log. Only without the funky goaty taste, of course. (Note: “farmer’s cheese” is a pretty vast and unspecified term for just about any simple fresh cheese but unlike “cottage cheese,” its etymological kin, it’s usually strained and pressed well more like paneer or mozzarella.)
The kind I got from Ronnybrook this late-spring, in any case, was almost like butter. A really good, strained and slightly yellowish butter that you can just taste the beta-carotenes of spring grass-fed cows from.
That might sound wonkytown, or on a hippy-dippy plane of bunk gastronomy, but just compare the milks and cheeses (and the eggs!) around this time of year from small-farm, local sources and you may begin to taste the green grass. In large-scale, industrial farming, consistency is the key, so you might not find seasonal aberrations in flavor, proteins or texture. But seasonal nuances are very much the point of specialty with local cheesemongers that can vary, and if you’re not convinced, just talk to them at the farmstand or tasting room yourself. It’s similar to making wines, which we all savor for the unique environmental changes in their terroir and vintages.
Now we just need a stage for these ingredients to shine. A simple toasted slab of bread will do. I’ve discussed over-embellishing strawberries with added sugars but made an exception here, with a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey. It’s just honey infused with some chili peppers for a hint of heat, and goes well with both savory and sweet. Carrying on, I dusted some cracked black pepper atop the whole shebang, and plucked some leaves from a mint plant to scatter across. A little spicy and cooling at the same time, this snack or breakfast is more than enough to entertain. Let’s toast to spring.
Strawberry Toast with Farmer Cheese, Mint and Hot Honey
(makes 1 serving)
4-5 ripe fresh strawberries, trimmed and sliced
1 piece bread (any kind), toasted
about 1 oz farmer cheese (substitute with ricotta or a similarly mild, fresh cheese)
3-4 fresh mint leaves
drizzle hot honey (such as Mike’s Hot Honey, or substitute with regular honey)
sprinkle freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Spread the cheese on the (cooled) toast and arrange the sliced strawberries on top. Arrange the mint leaves on top. Drizzle with the honey and sprinkle with the optional black pepper. Serve immediately.
(for 1 serving)
4 strawberries (at $4/pint): $1.00
1 oz farmer cheese (at $5 / 4 oz tub): $1.25
1 piece toast: $0.25
drizzle hot honey: $0.25
black pepper and a few leaves mint (from houseplant): $0.05
Six brownie points: Strawberries are densely packed nuggets of antioxidants and phytonutrients your body needs, and the redder and riper they are, the more (and the more sweetness). They’re high in natural sugars, too, which is why they scarcely need any sweetening when served fresh. But strawberries are also one of the more pesticide-ridden fruits and vegetables out there, as they’re prone to bugs enjoying that sweetness, too. Ask your farmers about what, or if, they spray anything on their berries when you’re at the market this season.
Eight maple leaves: Take advantage of this seasonal fruit while it’s around from local small farms, and you can always apply this same formula to newer ones as they come (I can see this working great with peaches). With a few simple ingredients also found locally like cheese, mint and bread, it’s a totally local and seasonal specialty.