I was probably about 6 the first time I encountered mulberries. We pulled into the parking lot of our town’s fitness center for my weekly swimming lesson. We had an outdoor pool but I was too delicate to be plunged into the icy cold water. A warm, over chlorinated pool was the only way I’d learn to swim. As my mom negotiated a parking space, I peered out the window at two middle-aged Spanish women standing on ladders in the middle of the lot. The ground below them was stained bright purple and they stretched to pick berries off the tree above, barely out of their reach. They had buckets filled to the brim with deep purple berries and occasionally would pop one into their mouths. I remember asking my mother what they were doing, but I don’t recall much of the conversation as we scurried into the building, late as usual. But that scene still plays vividly in my mind today and it was then I realized that there were plants you could eat not grown in a traditional farm or garden.
The strawberry-rhubarb combination is legendary and for good reason. As I’ve advocated in many of my recent posts, it’s the perfect combination of sweet and tart. But sometimes even the best pairs need to be broken apart. I mean think about it, if peanut butter and jelly didn’t spend some time apart, we would have never discovered the romance between peanut butter and nutella. Imagine living without that in your life.
Solo strawberries get a lot of play–ice cream, shortcake, plain with cream–but rhubarb tends to be more of a sidekick. In searching for a savory recipe for rhubarb, it took me hours to find anything at all before settling on a roasted rhubarb salad. And even with sweet treats, rarely do you see rhubarb unless it’s following strawberries. I get it. Rhubarb is a bit tart and difficult for some people to embrace. But cranberries seem to be doing just fine and they might be one of the most tart fruits I know. It’s time to give rhubarb some solo play.
The combination of strawberry and rhubarb is nothing short of genius. Food needs to be balanced–salty, sweet, spicy, tart. The combination of sun warmed fresh strawberries and blood-red crisp rhubarb is the ultimate combination of sweet and tart. For me , it’s the perfect dessert. I LOVE dessert and would never skip it if I could. BUT, I’m also not a fan of super sweet things. I stay away from many pies, often laden with extra sugar. While a small square of dark chocolate is perfectly satisfying, I want nothing to do with milk chocolate. Strawberry rhubarb pie is pretty much my ideal dessert. But of course, its something only so perfect in season. A strawberry rhubarb pie in winter, filled with California strawberries and rhubarb from who knows where just isn’t the same. When I can’t enjoy something fresh year round, I preserve it. And my beloved pie now takes the form of jam.
With June comes berries. First the strawberries trickle in, slowly followed by blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cherries. By mid July we’re practically swimming in berries–certainly not a bad problem to have. But as quickly as they arrive, bursting from every stand at the greenmarket, they soon disappear, leaving us with regret. Wishing we had just one more piece of strawberry shortcake, another bite of that raspberry cobbler or another scoop of blackberry sorbet. We try to fool ourselves with California berries during the winter months, but it’s just not the same. While we might not be able to get fresh local berries year round, we can preserve them. A jar of homemade strawberry jam is beyond perfection. You’ll never glance at those Welch’s jars again.
When I was growing up, my house backed up to a dried up creek that lead to a park. I loved it because it saved about 15 minutes cutting through to my friend’s house rather than having to walk all the way around. I lived in the suburbs and we always made our own fun. Most summer days I was out of the house from after breakfast until dinner time, playing with anyone who was around. We played tag, house, made bows and arrows out of willow branches, rode our bikes, attempted to build tree houses, pretty much anything we could find.
Along the dried up creek were grape vines. Not a lot, but just enough. The grapes were deep purple and so tempting. My parents told me to stay away from them because they were poisonous, but always was one to defy authority, just a little. The grapes were sweet at first with loose skins. Once you broke into the pulp, they became sour with crunchy seeds. If I ate too much I would get a strange itch in my mouth (also happens to me with pineapple), but it was thrilling to eat the forbidden fruit. I called them wild grapes. I was probably about 10 years old and didn’t know much about grapes, other than they weren’t the seedless ones we always got at the supermarket.