My relationship with strawberries is complex. My only opportunity to buy groceries is in the dead of night, having finally left a 12-hour shift working on a TV show production set or photoshoot. Safeway or 7-Eleven are my only options, and when I have strawberry cravings, the quality from those stores is lackluster.
I miss going to the farmers market and watching hungry folks browse in and out of the stalls, trying to find the prettiest berries for their summer pavlova or fruit tart. I loved watching people nitpicking at the produce and seeking out Instagram-worthy decor for food porn photo-ops. It's hard to stand out when everyone has astutely placed veggies and fruits in wicker baskets, shabby chic crates, rustic wooden signs and catchy farm names. Still, Saechao's Farm at the Arcata Farmers Market stood out — no bells and whistles, no graphic sign to catch a passerby's eye. The focus is all on the strawberries.
For Chan Saechao, owner of Saechao Farms, there's no nonsense when it comes to selling. Stacks and stacks of crates sit behind him and the simple fold-up tables full of bright green pint baskets filled with red berries. At more than 70 years old, his skin is tanned to caramel and his hands are rough and calloused. He still tends to his farm with little to no help aside from occasional assistance from his granddaughter. I asked him if anyone taught him how to grow strawberries and he replied, "Nobody teaches you anything, you just have to learn."
Chan, one of the few Southeast Asian farmers in Humboldt, is one of the thousands of Mien, Hmong and Laotian refugees who fled their native country of Laos during the Vietnam War. He came to the U.S. in 1979, started his farm in 1999 and hasn't been back to Laos since. Although Saechao would like to retire and relax one day, he hasn't made plans to go back to his native country due to complicated family and money issues that seem all too common among diasporic Southeast Asians. For now, he's content working on his farm.
I yearn for his freshly picked strawberries that still have a dusting of soil on them — the ones with a tender bite and a sublime balance of tart and sweet. The flavor should be potent and the juices spilling the moment your teeth break its soft skin. I get a little sentimental thinking about what I consider nature's candy.
My first taste of a more sophisticated strawberry dish was when I was about 10 years old. My teacher, Kristin Sobilo, had invited her spouse, Michael Sobilo, then a chef at Larrupin', to make my fifth grade class a fancy meal for Valentine's Day. I had never sat so still in my life and that's saying a lot for a kid with a punch of energy and ADHD to boot. I watched him hull, slice and toss the strawberries in the bowl with vigor. The only berry-based desserts I'd had were strawberry ice cream and strawberry shortcakes. I had no idea you could make something so complex with a fruit that I had deemed conventional and boring. I saw him reach for a bottle of dark liquid. "Balsamic vinegar," the label read. The words were foreign to me as someone who grew up with only fish sauce and shrimp paste in the pantry, but I was intrigued. After a few more ingredients, tosses and plating, the macerated strawberries were paired with a dollop of mascarpone cheese. Finally, after a few moments of staring at my plate, I took my fork and pierced the strawberry so that I could scoop a bit of the cheese and placed it in my mouth. Harmony is what comes to mind remembering this dish. The magical process of combining the sugar and berries yielded a nectarous syrup. A kick of tang and a woodsiness arose from the aged balsamic vinegar. To soothe those poignant flavors, the mascarpone cheese offered an opulent, creamy flavor to complement it all. I can't say these exact descriptions were going on in my head as a 10 year old but I'm sure it was something along those lines. It's definitely what I think when I eat this dish as an adult and I'm pretty sure you will, too.
Macerated Strawberries with Mascarpone Cheese
This recipe can be adjusted to your tastes. I love using strawberries that have a bit of bruising, are imperfect or are not quite ripe. Serves 2.
1 pint strawberries
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 container of mascarpone cheese (or whipped cream)
Options: a few fresh mint leaves, grated dark chocolate, a pinch of finely chopped vanilla bean, ground cardamom, ground ginger or freshly ground black pepper.
Rinse, hull and slice strawberries, then place them into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar, plus a teaspoon of one of the optional toppings and gently stir. Cover and chill for one hour.
Serve with a spoonful of mascarpone cheese and a dusting of dark chocolate.