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Terra Brockman

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Henry's Farm, Illinois

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The Seasons on Henry's Farm

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Terra Brockman is an author and speaker on a variety of food and farm topics. She has written extensively on food and agriculture, especially as it affects the environment. A member of a remarkable farming family, Terra is a nuanced observer of, fierce advocate for, and gifted writer and speaker about sustainable agriculture. She comes at her subject from unexpected angles, combining her experience growing up as one of the 4th generation of an Illinois farm family with expertise in biology, ecology, literature, philosophy and history.

Brockman’s most recent book, The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, was a finalist for the 2010 James Beard Award in writing/literature. The book takes the reader through the many “micro-seasons” on Terra’s brother Henry’s extremely diverse (655 varieties at last count) vegetable farm in central Illinois. Excerpts from the book have appeared in Orion Magazine (“Corn Porn,” August/Sept., 2009), and The Wildbranch Anthology (“Bean by Bean,” Univ. of Utah Press, 2010).

Brockman is also the founder of The Land Connection, an educational nonprofit she started when the disconnect between good land use, good meals, and good health became so dire that the situation demanded action on the ground. Today, The Land Connection is furthering the organization’s mission of preserving farmland, training new farmers, and empowering consumers.

Through her writing, speaking, and advocacy work, Brockman continues to work for healthy farmland, healthy foods, and healthy communities by elucidating the food chain that links the American eater to the American land. Her website is www.terrabrockman.com.

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Garlic Flavors That Will Blow Your Mind Image

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Kids Won’t Eat Vegetables? Start With Seed Libraries Image

Teach a kid to grow a carrot, or a cucumber, or even a cauliflower, and chances are that child will want to eat it. This common-sense notion is backed up by many studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from those who interact with kids in family and school gardens.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed 11 garden-based nutrition studies and found that adolescents who participated in these programs increased their fruits and vegetables consumption. The results of one study, in which children spent 12 weeks working in a garden taste testing the produce and using it to make their own snacks, found that 98% of kids said they liked the taste tests; 96% liked working in the garden; and 91% enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables. One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use “seed-to-table” activities to help teach kids about healthy eating.

Seed libraries

One easy way for families and schools to get the seeds for seed-to-table learning is through “seed libraries” — places where people can peruse many varieties of tomato, cucumber, green bean, and other seeds, and then “check out” seeds they want to grow. At the end of the growing season, the person saves some seed, and returns it to the seed library. As more and more people have begun growing some of their own food, seed libraries have sprung up all over the U.S., with about 300 currently operating.

Recently, though, the culture of growing good food and community ran up against the culture of bureaucracy, control and fear as the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shut down a seed bank at a public library in Mechanicsburg. Seed sharing, it turns out, is seen by some as dangerous. Barbara Cross, a Cumberland County commissioner, was quoted as saying that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” and “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge.”

To which many of us would say, “Amen, sister!”

sowing seeds

A farmer holds native prairie plant seeds at Spence Farm in Fairbury, Ill. Credit: Terra Brockman

Growing your own

One way to maintain and protect food sources is to know the source of your food, and what better way than to grow it from seed and prepare the fresh vegetables yourself. At a time when obesity and chronic diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing, we need more seed libraries and more people ready and willing to engage in civil di-seed-obedience, if necessary, to fight overzealous bureaucrats and to ensure that people have the opportunity to grow their own food.

Here are a few ways to do that:

Find a seed library near you, or start your own: There are a number of websites to  help. If you are concerned about the legalities, there is good information from the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s webpage, Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.

Get some seeds and sow ‘em: Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools. Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan.

Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting: Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start a school garden. You may also want to talk to cafeteria managers and principals to get their suggestions and buy-in. For inspiration, check out the Edible Schoolyard or Seeds of Solidarity programs. The groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:

• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org

• Collective School Garden Network

Slow Food USA’s School Garden Guide

 Main photo: A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

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5 Reasons To Love Fennel And How To Make Converts Image

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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4 Fresh Ideas To Make – Or Grill – For The Fourth of July Image

Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.

While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.

Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!

If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.

mint soda

Make a cool mint soda for hot summer days. Credit: Cara Cummings

Cool Mint Soda

Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

Mint sprigs for garnishing

Sparkling water

Directions

1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.

3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.

Grilled stuffed peppers

Grilled stuffed peppers are a quick Fourth of July favorite. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Stuffed Peppers

Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 sweet peppers, halved

8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)

1 large tomato, chopped

6 sprigs basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive Oil

Directions

1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.

2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.

3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.

Pesto-flavored potatoes

Use pesto to add a light, summer flavor to potatoes. Credit: Cara Cummings

Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled

Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves

1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)

¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated

¼ cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt, to taste

1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)

Directions

1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.

3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.

Peaches for the Fourth of July

Make a quick, easy, and delicious dessert using fresh peaches. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries

While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 peaches

1 cup tart cherries, pitted

½ cup honey

Olive oil

Directions

1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!

2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.

3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.

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Red, White & Blue: The Art Of Summer Berry Tart Image

There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.

Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.

Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.

Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.

Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.

Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.

Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.

Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.

Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.

All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.

You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!

Summer Berry Tart is a perfect choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

Berry Tart is a popular choice for summer. Credit: Terra Brockman

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”

Summer Berry Tart

Prep Time: 25 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
  • 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
  2. Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
  3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
  4. Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
  5. Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

The baked Summer Berry Tart. Credit: Terra Brockman

 

The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.

Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust

Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)

Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust

Ingredients

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

⅓ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

1¼ cups flour

Directions

1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.

4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.

Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Seductive Strawberry Variety Is A New Favorite Image

Superfood status aside, there is nothing more seductive than the sweet and spicy scent of the first gold-spangled ruby-red strawberries of the season. The uninitiated may wonder what on earth I’m talking about, since the fruit section of most grocery stores is as aroma-free as the canned goods section. But every Saturday in June, I watch a stream of savvy shoppers make a beeline to certain local farm stands where perfume still pervades the air.

The strawberries at a farmers market are generally not the largest, nor the longest-lasting, nor the most perfectly shaped. But there is a reason customers are standing six-deep, waiting their turn: When you bite into the soft flesh, juices and flavors ricochet around your mouth and your brain until you are in a delirium of pleasure. “This,” I hear people say again and again, “is what strawberries used to taste like!”

Indeed, this is how they tasted, before they were bred for color, size and shelf-life, before synthetic chemical fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to industrial belief, there are simple ways to control pests in the strawberry patch, the most time-tested being organic straw mulch (hence the straw in strawberries), which obviates the need for a host of chemicals. Straw keeps the berries off the moist ground (no need for fungicides), prevents weed seeds from germinating (no need for herbicides), and adds nutrients to the soil as the straw decomposes (no need for chemical fertilizers) — all the while enhancing the diversity of soil microorganisms that keep the farm ecosystem on an even keel.

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento, and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Even in our hot and humid Illinois summers, delicious strawberry varieties such as Jewel, Honey-oye, and Earliglo do very well. But my new favorite is Mara des Bois. It is a small, somewhat elongated berry, with an intoxicating fragrance, unusual red-orange color, and deep, complex and varied flavors. In fact, different berries, even from the same plant, can have remarkably different flavors. This may be because it is a combination of four heirloom varieties that the French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet crossed to get the Mara des Bois. Each variety contributes a layer of flavor and in some berries, one or another flavor predominates, with some sweeter, some more citrusy, some more perfumey.

I confirmed my suspicion of the berry-to-berry variations when I brought over a big bowl of them as a treat for friends, and each one brought a different accolade, from “tangerine!” to “Kool-Aid!” to “strawberry ice cream!” And so another and another disappeared until the bowl was empty.

And these bright bursts of flavor contain potent packages of nutrition. An average strawberry has only 4 calories, but packed in those few calories are 11% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. This means that eight to 10 strawberries give you more vitamin C than an orange. In addition, strawberries are high in fiber and antioxidants, and a good source of potassium and manganese.

While nothing says “welcome to summer” like strawberry shortcake, there are many other ways to use strawberries — if you can manage to get them home without eating them all on the way.  This easy salad combines the best of the rich flavors of early summer — spicy arugula with sweet/tart strawberries.

Arugula Salad with Aged Balsamic and Fresh Strawberries

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 4 cups torn arugula leaves
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved and crumbled into small pieces (½ cup)
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large salad bowl; let cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Add arugula, strawberries, Parmesan, pepper and salt. Sprinkle vinegar and oil over the salad; toss gently and serve at once.

 Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Main photo: The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman

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