By Lauren Chattman
It’s been a long winter for the Sag Harbor cook awaiting the arrival of local produce, but it’s been an even longer winter for the baker. While spinach, ramps, radishes and asparagus were available before Mother’s Day, local strawberries and rhubarb have made their way to farm stands and markets in the area only in the last week or two. Now, finally, we can make our strawberry shortcakes, our rhubarb coffee cakes, our strawberry-rhubarb pies. But the season is short. If you want to bake with local strawberries and rhubarb, now is the time. Both will be gone by the end of the month.
Over the weekend I spoke with Bette Lacina of Under the Willow, Sag Harbor’s own organic farm, while she put together a half-pint of strawberries for me at the Farmers Market on Bay Street. She described the challenges, and the occasional heartbreak, of growing such a delicate crop. A few days of soaking rain can ruin the most carefully cultivated organic strawberry patch. Weeds, which will take over the plants and reduce yield substantially, are a big headache for the organic farmer. Additionally, strawberries are susceptible to fungus, which is conventionally treated with a fungicide that can leave residue on berries if applied too close to harvest. Lacina doesn’t use any fungicides at all, so her customers are in no danger of consuming potentially toxic chemicals along with their strawberries. She urges consumers to ask not only if the strawberries they are buying are local, but if they are organic (raised without synthetic pesticides and pesticides) and fungicide-free. If you are picking up berries at a self-serve stand with a coin box but no farmer in sight, you can still buy with confidence if you know what to look for: Make sure the berries in question are relatively small in size (indicating that they haven’t been pumped up by fertilizers), ruby red throughout (because they’ve been picked when ripe), fragrant, and slightly yielding. Once you get them home, don’t refrigerate them. They should be eaten within a day or two of purchase, before they start to over-ripen on your countertop.
Rhubarb, whose tart flavor perfectly balances the sweetness of strawberries in a number of early summer desserts, is a hardy, easy-to-grow perennial that doesn’t give local farmers the same kind of heartache. Choose young, slender stalks if you can. Older, thicker stalks of rhubarb can be unpleasantly stringy. Once harvested, rhubarb will keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to a week.
I’ll admit that I’ve never truly mastered pie crust, and have never baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie. One of the reasons is that rather than practice my pie-making skills, I turn to this simple cobbler recipe whenever anyone asks me to bring over a summer fruit dessert. It consists of fruit tossed with sugar and some cornstarch (to thicken the strawberry juices that are released during baking), topped by dollops of a buttery cookie dough. The dough forms a rustic crust in the oven. To prepare the berries, simply slice the stem ends away with a sharp paring knife. No need to hull them. If they are large, cut each one in half. If your rhubarb stalks are on the thick and tough side, use a paring knife to peel away the outside stringy layer before chopping each stalk into ½-inch pieces. The rhubarb I bought from Quail Hill’s stand at the Sag Harbor Farmer’s Market last week was so young and tender that this step wasn’t necessary.
If you’ve clipped this recipe and set it aside for a few weeks, only to realize that local berries are no longer available, don’t throw it away! It is adaptable to any seasonal fruit, in whatever combination you enjoy. Later in the summer I will make a peach-blueberry cobbler, and in September, when raspberries are ripening and we’re seeing the first of the apple harvest, I’ll make an apple-raspberry version. Just substitute 5 cups of fruit (peeled and cut into chunks if necessary), and you can improvise depending on what you’ve bought at the market.
4 cups local strawberries, washed, stemmed, and halved if large
1 cup chopped rhubarb
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1.Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the berries, rhubarb, 1/4 cup sugar, and cornstarch in a bowl and let stand, stirring once or twice, until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Cream together the butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat in the flour, salt, and baking powder until incorporated.
3. Scrape the strawberry-rhubarb mixture into an 8-inch square baking pan. Drop tablespoonfuls of the cobbler dough on top of the fruit. Bake until the dough is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack and serve warm or at room temperature.