Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Newspaper - STRAWBERRY MILLE FEUILLE

This column appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on 24 July 2006.

Sometimes, we can trace our talents directly to our parents. From my mom, I get my collecting-old-dishware gene. From my dad, I get my talent for berry picking. My dad is a terrific berry picker. He is in early, picks steadily, eats little and doesn’t quit until the pails are full. There is a legend in our family that he broke the all-time record for the most cherries picked in one day at a certain U-Pick in BC. That’s my dad.

When I was growing up on the farm, late July was time for the annual saskatoon berry expedition to Findlater Valley or Lake Manitou. I learned early to wear white (to stay cool), long sleeves (against the brambles) and a belt (to loop the handle of the bucket so both hands were free). We packed the bug spray, a picnic and lots of ice cream pails.

I have always loved picking berries. I love the rhythm of it, like a mantra, a single action repeated but not without challenge, since the berries must be examined as they are picked and discarded if wormy. I love the solitude in the bush, the heat and the buzzing insects. I love the feeling of accomplishment, pride in picking clean and thorough, the gratification of watching the pail fill slowly to the top.

Of course, I love to eat berries, too. Considering all this, it’s a good thing I was born in Saskatchewan where berry picking is a cultural pastime from way back. It’s getting even easier now to pick berries with U-Pick farms popping up all over the place. The website of the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association has a map showing more than 70 U-Picks around the province and lists 16 different fruits!

Last summer, I discovered the Yoanna Orchard U-Pick at Radisson. They have 50 different varieties of apples, but I was ga-ga for the cherries. These are small, tart cherries perfect for jams and pies, developed at the University of Saskatchewan for our dry summers and cold winters. In two visits, my husband and I picked nine buckets. This summer, I am already satisfying my itch to pick. A few weeks ago I went to the Strawberry Ranch with a couple of girlfriends and their kids. I spent the rest of the morning canning fruit and making jam. Then some other friends let me loose in their raspberry patch...

I am so passionate about Saskatchewan fruit because I am passionate about Saskatchewan food overall. For one full year, my husband and I ate almost nothing but Saskatchewan foods at our own dinner table. We made an effort to try new things and to really make the most of what this province has to offer. Now that year is up and we have a new challenge. Everyday, I want to eat something procured by our own hands. It might be herbs or fish or, you guessed it, lots of berries.

STRAWBERRIES MILLE FEUILLE
(or Strawberries Between the Sheets)

In France, mille feuille means a thousand sheets of paper or a thousand leaves. It is often created by layering fruit and cream between thin layers of cake or sweet crisps. This version is even easier, but it looks just as impressive. This recipe makes four desserts. For larger amounts you can double the pastry cream.

phyllo pastry
1/3 cup butter
1 cup fresh sliced strawberries
icing sugar for dusting

Pastry Cream
1/2 tbsp vanilla
1 cup milk
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp flour
1.5 tbsp soft butter
1/3 cup whipping cream

Cut the phyllo pastry into roughly four-inch squares. You’ll need seven squares per person, but do a few extra incase some break. Melt 1/3 cup butter until it foams. Remove from heat and skim off the foam with a spoon. Spread the pastry sheets in a single layer on a clean cooking sheet. (I covered the cookie sheet in parchment paper.) Brush the pastry lightly with melted butter and bake in a 300-degree oven. Watch carefully – it takes just a few minutes to crisp and turn brown. Store the pastry sheets in an airtight container.

Heat the milk and vanilla on medium heat until it boils. In another bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour and mix well. Add one-quarter of the hot milk and whisk until fully incorporated. Whisk in the remaining milk and pour through a strainer into a clean saucepan. Heat the mixture on medium, stirring constantly, until it boils. Remove from heat and whisk in the soft butter a bit at a time so it is completely smooth. Cool. This can be made ahead of time, pressed with plastic wrap and stored in the fridge.

Before serving, whip the cream and fold it into the cold pastry cream. Place three pastry sheets on each plate. Cover with a layer of pastry cream. Dot with strawberries. Add another three pastry sheets, more cream and more fruit. Top with one more sheet. For decoration, you might place a half strawberry on the top of each one. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Ode to Rhubarb - RHUBARB MUFFIINS

I love any plant in my garden that can survive a Saskatchewan winter and spring back up in... well... spring. Rhubarb fits that bill. Even if you don’t eat it, it just looks great. Some friends were talking recently about green rhubarb. Apparently that was more common before this upstart red variety cornered the rhubarb market. Somehow, I just don’t think it would be as pleasing to eat.

My nieces were recently visiting from the metropolis of LA and I got them hooked on raw rhubarb dipped in sugar. Mmmmmm. One of my favourite ways to eat rhubarb is a Rhubarb Up-side-down Cake (see recipe at 30 May 2005), but these muffins come a close second.

RHUBARB MUFFINS
2.5 cups flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla

Topping:
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup rolled oats
1 tbsp melted butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Mix in the rhubarb and coat the pieces in flour. In another bowl, mix the sugar and oil. Whisk in the egg, buttermilk and vanilla. Blend this liquid mixture into the flour mixture, stirring just and until it is incorporated. Spoon the batter into a greased muffin tin. Sprinkle a bit of topping on each one. Bake at 350F. for 20-25 minutes. (It makes 18 muffins in my muffin tin.)