In Iowa, June means berries: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and cherries. They should come to fruition in approximately that order, which leads to a whole month of joy for the gardener and the forager as well as the cook.
Raspberries are probably native to Asia, though some botanists disagree on this point. Acclaimed food writer Waverly Root points out that regardless of what proof the scientists may have, you can taste the Orient in the raspberry: “It breathes the Orient—rich, exotic, spice-laden, with a hint of musk.”
Now the raspberry grows, wild and cultivated, throughout much of the temperate world. Even so, it was considered quite a luxury until very recent times. George Bush Sr. was not the first Presidential candidate to be accused of being out of touch with the common man. Indeed, Mr. Root tells us that the Whigs attacked Martin Van Buren during his 1840 campaign for “wallowing lasciviously in raspberries.”
Today raspberries do command a premium, but that is more a function of economics. Packaging, transporting, and attempting to buy and sell them out of season are what make for $4.50 half pints. If you have a sunny spot to spare, raspberries grow voraciously here in Iowa, and one starter shoot costs less than that half pint.
Strawberries, too, have a long history. Virgil wrote of them, though only to warn children picking them to beware of snakes. They have been cultivated for hundreds of years, but the cultivation has not led to any substantial improvement in quality. That is, unless you count shelf life and “shipability” as improvements.
The fresh strawberry, especially the rare little Alpine white, is at its peak this time of year. The slightly larger and much more common reds are the perfect accompaniment to your last crop of rhubarb, which should be coming in about now. Also, if you have yet to discover the miraculous marriage of strawberries with balsamic vinegar, you must avail yourself immediately. Simply toss fresh, sliced strawberries with balsamic vinegar. Trust me.
The cherry has more history than its minor part in presidential lore as well. To again refer to Waverly Root, the story of George Washington and his cherry tree “was an invention of Parson Weems, in his The Life of George Washington.” Still, wild cherries have grown all over the northern hemisphere for thousands of years and are relatively easy to grow in your own orchard, provided you can manage to harvest them before the birds do.
While I am not often a proponent of “fusion” cuisine, cherries make an incredible salsa with the Japanese mangoes that are just coming into season as the cherry season here ends.
1/3 c. red wine vinegar
2 shallots, minced
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. fresh chervil
1/2 c. fresh raspberries or blackberries
1 c. grapeseed oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a bowl or food processor, whip the vinegar, shallots, mustard, chervil, and raspberries until fully incorporated and smooth. Strain through fine mesh or cheesecloth to remove the seeds. Return to bowl or food processor and whip rapidly while adding the oil in a slow, steady stream. When all the oil is emulsified into the fruit vinegar mixture, taste, season with salt and pepper, and taste again.
Makes enough for 10-12 green salads. Also a nice marinade for chicken, pork, and some fish. Will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
For each cup of raspberries or blackberries, make about 1/2 cup simple syrup (that’s equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil). Puree the berries in a blender or food processor, and add simple syrup to taste. Strain through fine mesh for a more elegant appearance. Use a “squeezee” bottle to make nice designs on dessert plates.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Filling
Nearly everyone has his or her own favorite piecrust recipe, so I encourage you to use yours, except to say please use butter, not shortening or margarine. Not only are the latter two indigestible, they make heavy, leaden crusts to boot!
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1-1/2 c. fresh rhubarb, sliced
1-1/2 c. fresh strawberries, halved or
quartered (depending on size)
1 tsp. orange zest
1 Tbsp. orange juice
1 tsp. fresh ground cardamom
A little butter, to top
Beat the sugar and flour into the eggs. Fold in the remaining ingredients (except the butter). Fill an unbaked pie shell and top with bits of the butter. Cover this with a lattice of pie dough, brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and bake about 40 minutes at 350° F., until golden brown. Allow to cool in the kitchen window to make your neighbors envious.
Mango-Cherry “Pico de Gallo”
2 mangos, peeled, seeded & diced
6 ounces cherries, pitted & halved
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 red onion, peeled and julienned
2 serrano peppers, seeded & minced
1/3 c. cilantro, chopped
2 limes, juiced
Simply mix all the ingredients and let stand refrigerated at least one hour. It is better, though, to make 1 day ahead and stir occasionally. It lasts in the refrigerator for about 3 days. Absolutely fantastic with almost any grilled item, especially pork, veal, or salmon.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.