31 July 2012

Such order of things

A watermelon (bigger than my head), a few punnets of last late-season strawberries, a pound each of peaches (buzzy and juicy) and nectarines (sweet and juicy), a punnet of gooseberries and one of blueberries, these have all made their way into my bag on my latest, a couple short fleeting hours ago, raid to a green grocer. That's a lot of fruit, an impartial observer would exclaim, and the impartial observer would be right. You see, fruit is my favorite thing in the world. If insisted to choose between vegetables and fruit, I'll side with the latter any moment, regardless of the time of year. Vegetables, I value them mightily, for I know they are good for me. It's an affair of the mind, if you like. But fruit, Reader, fruit, also being good and all, is my siren and I don't have a crust enough to resist its sweet song. Especially, especially in summer. Some take trips to warm, sun-drenched, sandy beaches to thoroughly enjoy the season. Me, I eat my weight in all this fruit. It's kind of my thing and I think of it as my tribute to summer.

I see these perky strawberries or burgundy-laden cherries or lusty peaches or anything that has anything to do with the warm weather's sweet bounty and my eyes get groggy and my knees grow weak (and my wallet thins down a notch). What a misfortune that the stomach can only take so much! You should have seen me obliviously gobbling up wedge after wedge of this watermelon that I schlepped home today, my teeth sinking into its sugary red flesh, into the seeds, on and on and on until my insides went tottering on the edge of exploding, twisting and turning, making me pay for my choices.

Or cherries. I'm telling you around them I not only challenge the constraints of my own body, but I also lose all sense of social decency. We had guests for dinner the other night, and some incredibly ripe, nearly black cherries were for dessert. I served them in one large fruit bowl placed at the center of the table, for everybody to pick, you know. I didn't notice, however, how I'd single-handedly noshed the whole bowlful in the blink of an eye. Apologize for such oversight to my guests I did, considerately offering to run out for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Coconutterly Fair instead, but ashamed -- no, I wasn't. I see cherries; I claim them. That's how I am, and that's that. Ditto with strawberries. And with apricots. And with plums. And, and, and...You hand me any summer fruit (ripe or not just), and I'll merrily munch it away. Which is what I seem to have done for as many a year as my memory stretches out to, and which is how fruit had always been treated in my familial environs. You pick it in your garden (or at the market), you rinse it, you eat it. No fruit pies, no fruit cakes, no fruit cooked, no fruit baked. Just eat it. There often was none, but the surplus would usually be morphed into long-simmered fruit jams, if anything. Despite the obvious dearth of fruity baked goods, I was fine with such order of things.

Frankly, I still am, and knowing my propensities, I don't expect to change my fruit-handling ways in any significant manner, yet I do want to do better in terms of summer fruit-oven relationship. I hear this book is full of inspirational gems on the subject, and I can't wait to get it (ordered!). Actually, I've stuck my neck out there already and got promptly and solidly excited for weeks by Sfoglia's spaghetti and strawberries.

It does sound gimmicky, this strawberry and spaghetti business, doesn't it? Only it is not. Turns out strawberries pair well with tomatoes (sweet-sour and sweet-sour), and we all know how good balsamic vinegar is to both. And if you have any reservations as to whether or not it will take you into the dessert territory, let me be the one to tell you the dish is squarely savory. It is also very refreshing, especially when served chilled. To me this is one of those few pasta dishes that make perfect sense cold. This way, the strawberry and the tomato, both broken down by a brief simmer in olive oil and with balsamic vinegar, join hands more noticeably and claim, insistently, their right to be together, which they should. Until the strawberries have gone for good this year.

I'll break down when that happens.

Spaghetti with Strawberries
Adapted from Sfoglia via New York Magazine
Yield: 2-4 servings

From the looks of it the original recipe yields more than enough for four eaters, and seeing that most days it's only the two of us that I cook for, or sometimes just for myself, I halved the amounts except for the strawberries. Whatever you do, don't skimp on the strawberries; they are key to make the dish saucy.

For a successful outcome, you want an aged (eight-year-old) balsamic vinegar that is more sweet than acidic, the one that's almost syrupy. I didn't listen first and used an ordinary variety I had then to hand. Would you be surprised to know that it made the strawberries too sour? Get a good eight-year-old balsamic vinegar from a speciality store, go for broke.

I like to crown each individual serving with a handful of crisp peppery arugula (rucola) leaves, to slightly offset the sweet and sour notes in the ensemble. To this end, you will also want to generously use freshly ground black pepper.

If late-season strawberries are still lurking around on your farmer's market stands (I'm lucky they are still going strong here), use the sweetest of the kind. There will already be enough tartness coming from the tomato. Sfoglia's chefs call for San Marzano tomato puree in their recipe (San Marzano tomatoes being reputed the best for the sauces), but I used a conventional tomato puree and wasn't disappointed. 

And, here it goes.

250 g (1/2 pound) dried spaghetti 
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
450 g (1 pound) strawberries, trimmed and halved
1 Tbsp good aged (eight-year-old) balsamic vinegar
125 ml (1/2 cup) San Marzano tomato puree
60 ml (1/4 cup) reserved pasta water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packaging. 

In a large skillet and over medium heat, warm the olive oil and half of the strawberries. Cook until the strawberries start to reduce their juices. Add the balsamic and reduce by half, 2-4 minutes. 
Add the rest of the strawberries, the tomato puree and the reserved pasta water, and reduce by half, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, 5-7 minutes. Season to taste. Toss with the spaghetti and finish with olive oil and fresh ground black pepper (see head notes). Serve at room temperature or chilled. Garnish each serving with fresh arugula (rucola) leaves.