A ripe, red strawberry is summer distilled – nature conspiring in a single moment of sweetness. The season for local berries is here. So why are chefs jumping the gun and feeding us the pale green versions?
Because underripe fruit is a new realm to discover. As with many recent food trends, you can thank Danish superstar chef Rene Redzepi for the green strawberry shortcakes at Roberta’s in Brooklyn and the beef striploin garnished with pickled berries at Camille’s in Victoria. It wasn’t until Scandinavian cooking – and Redzepi’s Noma in particular – rose to prominence that the underripe strawberry started tumbling onto menus around the world.
What makes these unripe berries so appealing is that they have a tart punch that works beautifully with both savoury and sweet flavours. From candying to fruit leather, the preparation accentuates its complicated flavours. To Laura Cronin, pastry chef at Perbacco in San Francisco, they have a similar flavour to kiwi when cooked or soaked in sugar syrup and an acidic, vegetal flavour when raw. “Every year I try to find a new way to sweeten them up in a dessert,” she says, having used them in pannacottas, gelatos and a stone fruit salad. Right now they find expression as a jam filling in her puffy bombolini, their earthy flavour accentuating the candy-cap-mushroom-infused sugar that dusts the Italian doughnut.
For chef Quang Dang at West in Vancouver, the acid hit is best employed in savoury dishes. He’s paired the berries with oily mackerel, B.C. herring and rich chicken liver mousse. “It can really bring up the flavour of a dense dish,” he says, citing the fatty pork belly topped with green strawberry relish. Sometimes he makes balsamic vinaigrettes with the pickling juice or passes it onto West’s mixologist to make a shrub drinking vinegar for cocktails.
Getting his hands on the berries is another question. “You think you want to get them before they’re ripe but the farmers don’t feel that way. Anything in the spring that’s green is going to turn red and that’s their cash crop,” he says. Instead, he waits till the cool weather arrives in the fall and picks over the late-ripening varieties that the farmers are happy to get rid of.
Toronto’s Grant van Gameren also finds sourcing difficult, though he’s been too busy opening up his new restaurant Bar Isabel to find a supplier this year. He’s using last year’s flash-frozen green strawberries to make a simple sorbet topped with French sorrel grown in his garden. The sugar in the sorbet balances out the sour berries and the sorrel adds herbaceous and citrus notes. “Chefs are always searching for new, different fruits,” he says, “like underripe pears and peaches.”
So what’s next? Green blueberries, says Dang. But someone already beat him to it. The farmer he was sourcing from said his mother’s been putting them in her East Indian pickles for 30 years.
Special to The Globe and Mail