At the opening of the Napa Farmers Market on April 15, I was pleasantly surprised to find early-season strawberries. I bought a three-pack to take home for school lunches and snacks. Thank you, Kenwood Strawberry Patch!
With this spring’s heavy, late rainfall and cool temperatures, our local farmers have had a slow start to their growing season. Regular market merchants Big Ranch Farms, Gauchito Hill Farm and Long Meadow Ranch arrived with beautiful produce; favorite growers The Patch in Sonoma and Rodriguez Farms are still a few weeks away from arriving at the market.
The beautiful strawberries at the market inspired today’s column and brought back memories of a favorite cookbook, The Blue Strawbery Cookbook: Cooking (Brilliantly) Without Recipes, and my first restaurant job in the Napa Valley at Domaine Chandon. The recipe I share in today’s column is one that we prepared at Domaine Chandon and is a fancier version of one from The Blue Strawbery.
Around 1970, an important movement began in American restaurant kitchens. The counter-culture movement of the 1960s led young, adventurous and often untrained cooks into restaurant kitchens. They were armed with fresh new ideas and old cookbooks like The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, originally published in 1896. In these old cookbooks, simple recipes relied less on technique and more on the quality of the ingredients.
Chez Panisse, which opened in Berkeley in 1971, is one of the best- known of the restaurants that started to change the American culinary scene. Another important but lesser-known restaurant from that era is the long-shuttered Blue Strawbery restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The Blue Strawbery was opened in 1970 by an untrained chef named James Haller. The purposeful misspelling of the name paid homage to Strawbery Banke, the oldest part of Portsmouth that was originally settled in 1630. Captain Walter Neale chose the area to build a settlement, naming it after the wild berries growing along the Piscataqua River.
Six years after the restaurant opened, Harvard Common Press published the restaurant’s cookbook. Like the restaurant, the cookbook stayed largely under the radar, but it has inspired me over the years. I enjoy the author’s writing style. I find it to be much like James Beard’s: part storytelling, part history, part remembrances and part recipes.
“At Blue Strawbery,” the author writes, “we serve strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar in lieu of pastries for dessert. Naturally, you leave them whole (of course we only use fresh strawberries) and you dip them in sour cream, then brown sugar, and as quickly as possible put them in your mouth.”
I worked as a cook at the restaurant at Domaine Chandon in the mid-1980s under Chef Philippe Jeanty, a creative and skilled chef. Philippe hired me (I think) so I would stop showing up unannounced asking for a job. I really wanted to work there.
After my first week of doing nothing but washing spinach, I wondered if it was such a great job. I learned so much about cooking with fresh ingredients and careful preparation.
At Domaine Chandon, we served a little more formal version of the Blue Strawbery dessert, but the effect was about the same. This recipe shows how the freshest strawberries, simply prepared, can be a worthy dessert at a fine-dining restaurant or at your own kitchen table.
Strawberries with Sour Cream and Brown Sugar
2 baskets strawberries, hulled
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
2 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
Mint leaves for garnish
Lay the strawberries on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
Whisk together the sour cream, milk, lemon juice and salt. Arrange the strawberries hull side down in a serving dish. Spoon the sour cream mixture over them. Sprinkle brown sugar on top and garnish with mint leaves.
The Napa Farmers Market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April 15 through Nov. 21, in the parking lot of the South Napa Century Center, 195 Gasser Drive, Napa. The third Tuesday of every month is Seniors’ Day at the market, with some vendors offering discounts to shoppers 65 and older. Ask about participating vendors at the information booth. For more market information and a schedule of upcoming events, visit NapaFarmersMarket.org or visit the market on Facebook.
The Farmers’ Market participates in the Market Match Program, doubling CalFresh users’ buying power on EBT-approved items. Benefits can be accessed at the market information booth. Several farm vendors are also certified to accept WIC and SNAP checks (available through WIC). For a list of WIC certified vendors, visit the market’s information booth.