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Tuesday
May222012

In the Nourish Kitchen: Strawberries and the Gift of Imperfect Perfection

Recently, an intelligent person I have incredible respect for commented on my tendency to be hard on myself.  This comment made me think about this flaw which grabbed me as a child and has held on tightly. Some perfectionist mellow with age and the reins are loosened. In my case, the battle raged on into motherhood.

For Jennifer Downing, the perfect berry might be tiny and smooshed, but it smells like heaven. Photo provided.Many great moms told me to relax, let things go and give myself a break. I didn’t listen. Maybe after a decent night of sleep and formal proclamation I could have grasped the idea and understood such sage advice. “Welcome to motherhood! You won’t need all of that baggage. Nature Valley makes granola just as good, those breakable Pottery Barn-esque accessories are choking hazards, and no one really notices sticky handprints on glass doors.”  Instead, I constantly chased my version of flawless and, no surprise, I’ve never caught it. Taking heed would have made the early years of motherhood so much easier.  No, I continued to make granola, pick up toys every hour, group accessories higher, and then higher still.  I obsessed over the handprints.  As more children arrived in the yellow house, I ironed tiny t-shirts, and planned meticulously-themed birthday parties complete with homemade cupcakes (which went straight into the trash can).  I volunteered … for everything.

As children grew in numbers greater than the sum of their parents I began to let things slip. I recycled more volunteer sheets than I returned. The ironing board was in the closet, and I placed wrinkled but smoothed clothes into drawers. There was dust where energy efficient bulbs allowed it to be missed. Chips on my white trim remained chips on my white trim. I felt guilty. I felt I had failed.

Kindly that same intelligent someone drew a parallel I was able to really understand. Sharing my passion for cooking and love of food, she knows if my parsnips have many legs, the parsley leaves are occasionally yellow and the potatoes wear clumps of dirt; I couldn’t be more pleased.

“Jennifer,” she said, “Consider the perfect strawberry.”

I did and I came up with this: Tiny and oddly shaped, incredibly fragrant though sometimes smooshed, not good for a journey, highly perishable; and sold in continually recycled, stained, chip wood containers. My perfect berry doesn’t meet the standards of many. For me the value of amazing flavor far exceeds loss of the mushy ones.  For some, bigger berries are better; and better berries are consistent. When packed for a picnic they handle the road. They sometimes smell a bit like a berry and are most often tasteless.

So, I have examined what I believe equals perfection.  When choosing food, I seek out dirt, am OK with squishy, the more wrinkles my kale has the better, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. My memories of picking imperfect berries with my Grandma are unequaled. The time I took to make an over-gelled jar of jam was worth every second. It’s not arriving at the destination unmarred that matters most, but the pleasures along the way.

So, my strawberry lesson is this: Wrinkles are not the enemy. Dusty doesn’t mean dirty. Legos work with the color palette of any room.  And, sometimes perfection may be found in the bad light of an energy efficient light bulb. If my family life is flavorful, do the details really matter?

If you’d like to seek out your own imperfect strawberries shop your local farm markets soon. Better yet build memories of picking your own and leave the dust behind in the dim light of a hallway.

Strawberry Muffins

These are terrific way to fill sticky hands with breakfast, a snack or dessert.

Ingredients: 

  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) best-quality unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 large room-temperature eggs
  • 1½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1/8 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/3 c. plain yogurt
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1½ c. strawberries, cored & sliced (coring is not usually necessary with local berries)

Directions: 

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Grease and flour 12 muffin cups or use paper liners.
  • Measure yogurt and carefully stir in vanilla extract. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.
  • Using a stand or handheld mixer beat the butter until light. With the mixer running, add the sugar and beat until fluffy, at least 3-5 minutes Add eggs one at a time. 
  • Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to butter mixture and mix until just incorporated. Add 1/3 of the yogurt mixture, then continual alternating flour and yogurt mixture. Do this fairly quickly so the batter is not overbeaten, within 3 minutes. Carefully fold in the sliced strawberries.
  • Divide batter between muffin tins.
  • Bake approximately 18-22 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 5 minutes before removing to a cooking rack.

Notes: Delicious warm or room temperature but best eaten within a day.

Folding in the sliced strawberries. Photo provided.

Strawberry muffins, ready for the oven. Photo provided.

These strawberry muffins are best if eaten within about a day - as if they'd last much longer. Photo provided.

With a love for everything edible, the kitchen is the place Jennifer Downing is most at home. Her business, Nourish, affords her the opportunity to share her enthusiasm for teaching through cooking classes, demonstrations, and hosting trips focusing on fresh foods. Jennifer’s vast food knowledge and involvement with local food policy organizations informs her delicious instruction.  Speaking engagements and presentation share useful techniques, tips and strategies for conscious shopping and cooking to help her students nourish their lives and feed those they love.

She lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband, four kids, two dogs, six  backyard hens and a newly installed hive of honey bees. In her spare time you may find her in the garden, reading, and writing about her many passions. 

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