08 June 2007
Rumor Has It
Strawberry Shortcake, at the market in Muhajereen, Damascus
Like so many things in a totalitarian country, truth often comes by way of rumor. In Syria, information creeps along dusty streets, whispers through neighbors’ walls, and in a country with limited resources or opportunities for fun, joy still comes in the bounty of each season.
When it comes to agricultural produce, word travels from the farm first. A colleague of mine had driven up to the mountain town of Saiyadniah, and says he saw roadside stands with the first fresh almonds of the season. Sometimes, word might come that lack of rain has delayed the artichokes. A friend tells me he saw big piles of blackberries sold by street vendors at Baramke bus station, a few intrepid salesmen eager to capitalize on the short season. We move from one seasonal joy to the next, persimmons, almonds, pistachios, corn, figs, even garlic and fresh leafy thyme get their due.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those rumors that anticipate the arrival of each crop. Here in America, winter came particularly late this year and lasted longer than anyone wanted. Spring was delayed in arriving, and we were deep in snow when we should have been reveling in early spring produce. Food magazines, operating on predictability, arrived in my mailbox with covers of asparagus and berries, touting the joys of spring as I brushed the sleet off their frigid edges. Grocery stores followed suit, stocking the produce that the food industry dictates will be in demand. Standing in the cold aisle of the produce section in April, I surveyed a landscape of imported asparagus, spring greens, tomatoes. I felt lackluster and uninspired; in the impersonal topography of the modern supermarket, no one whispered to me about when the apricots would be in.
Now it’s June and the magazines are touting grilling and summer corn and tomatoes. But my market is still bustling with the joy of a delayed spring, and this week I emerged with an armful of asparagus, morel mushrooms, baby greens, and local strawberries. The strawberries are all sizes, some fat, some tiny, some very oddly shaped, and all incredibly sweet and juicy enough to run down your chin. Eating them, I thought of a carton of Driscoll berries I saw yesterday at the supermarket, literally the size of my fist and only pale pink, and I felt positively sad.
For dinner, I tossed up our vegetables into a spring sauté, and got some local crab meat to make crab cakes. Then I sliced the strawberries and piled them with whipped cream between sweet little shortcakes, for a quintessential American dessert. I had hoped to pick up some fava beans as well, but rumor has it they won’t be ready for a few more weeks. But I’ve got strawberries, and I’m happy to wait.
for the strawberries:
3 cups strawberries, halved
1/3 cup sugar, or to taste
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp rose water (optional)
1 tsp lemon juice
for the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
for the shortcakes:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk
1. Combine the strawberries, sugar, vanilla, rosewater, and lemon and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate.
2. Whip cream to soft peaks, add the powdered sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Preheat oven to 425°. Combine flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl; cut in butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk, stirring just until moist (dough will be sticky). Give the dough a few more gentle stirs to encourage it to come together.
4. Drop the dough onto a greased baking sheet to form 5-6 cakes. Bake at 425° for 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
5. Split shortcakes in half horizontally using a serrated knife; place each bottom half on a dessert plate. Spoon some of the strawberry mixture over each bottom half, and top with whipped cream. Top with shortcake tops. Serve.