Last week, my friend Christina and I went strawberry picking. I like Christina. Christina is sharp and funny and unassuming enough to regularly surprise you as you get to know her over time. She’s one of the maybe three friends I’ve ever had who is a twin. I’ve always wished I were a twin. People sometimes mistook my brother and me for twins (do you see it?) but, as his knee-jerk reaction has always been sheer and absolute horror when these assumptions have been made, I think it’s safe to say I’m the only one flattered there. I met Christina’s twin, Nicole, a few months ago over tacos at a table barely as wide as a paperback book; I liked her, too.
Christina and I met in a way that would not have been possible even three decades ago: connecting through a connection that had been made over what else but, you guessed it, the Internet. Since our first chat, I think in December, about writing and freelancing and the creative life, we’ve shared pizza on Easter, attended a live interview with Anne Lamott, had teas in East Nashville and launched a book club. You know how C.S. Lewis famously said that friendship begins the moment one person turns to another and says, “me too”? The first time our book club met was in late January. I’d taken every chair in our house and set it out in the living room, ten of us gathering around to eat sweet potato fries, popcorn and cookies. We were supposed to share a favorite book and say why you liked it. When it was Christina’s turn, she pulled out Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.
Other major “me too” moments have included hometowns in the Midwest (hers is Holland, Michigan), agreement over certain books and bloggers (including everybody’s favorite, Ashley) and a long-abiding fascination with all things architecture and home design (when I told Christina Tim and I have been house-hunting, she started emailing me listings she liked). Also, it was her idea to drive out to a local strawberry field where, she’d emailed me ahead of time, strawberries were “$10 a gallon!”
And so last Tuesday, at the end of our parallel writing-from-home workdays, the two of us went to Lebanon.
Circle S Farm in Lebanon is about 40 minutes east of Nashville, set on a quiet, rural piece of land with rows and rows of strawberries and plenty of containers to pick and put them in. While it’s not a certified organic farm, I have it from the owners themselves that they don’t spray the berries with anything and try to stay as wholesome as possible. And as a true testament to small-town charm, payments at the farm are on the honor system: Just put your cash in the locked box when you go.
I came home to Tim that Tuesday night with three full flats of fresh berries, some of which we immediately washed and froze, some of which we stuffed into quesadillas and some of which we saved for jam (something Christina also planned to do!). The next morning, in the midst of getting ready and handling a phone meeting, we made our first-ever strawberry preserves together. We didn’t have pectin on hand, so we went with a version that uses gelatin instead; also, instead of traditional sugar, we used honey.
The result? Sheer delight—the kind of thick, sweet, plump strawberry preserves that require a spoon rather than a butter knife for dolloping and spreading on toast. Clear, unadulterated strawberry flavor. I love when you make strawberry something and it truly tastes like strawberry something, as if there were nothing but pure fruit inside. We made two versions, one with balsamic vinegar and one with basil; both solidifying slowly into stable, gelatinous masses that beg to be paired with peanut butter on bread.
Then, a day or two after we made jam, we turned some into ice cream. We’re talking about a crazy simple ice cream—an ice cream with four ingredients, maybe three: jam, coconut milk, vanilla extract and a little extra coconut sugar if you like. It was wonderful. Refreshing. Creamy and milky and the palest pink.
And the thing that amazes me most about all of it—the jam and the ice cream and the strawberry picking—is how they are a testament, again, to the power of connections, wherever they begin—from across a crowded table to across computer screens.
Strawberry Basil Jam (or, technically, more of strawberry basil preserves)
Adapted from Cooks.com
Makes about one quart
I’m calling this strawberry (basil) jam because the first time we made it, we didn’t use the basil—but then we used the jam to make ice cream. The second time, we did use basil, and that’s the recipe posted here. You may make the same recipe with or without basil, or with balsamic as explained below.
(In the first version of preserves, instead of adding the basil leaves, we added a few drizzles of balsamic. A slightly more acidic flavor result, perhaps for a more refined palate, but we loved it.)
4 cups of washed, trimmed fresh strawberries, halved
1/3 cup of honey
2 tablespoons of lemon juice (which is about the juice of one lemon)
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
10 fresh basil leaves, chopped finely (optional)
(Another option is a few drizzles of your favorite balsamic)
Assuming you’ve got your strawberries all prepped, set a large stockpot on the stove and combine berries, honey and lemon juice. Warm over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, put 1/2 cup of cold water in a bowl on the counter, and sprinkle a tablespoon of unflavored gelatin on top. Let it stand while you return to the stovetop.
Stir the boiling liquids for about three minutes. Add the bowl of gelatin water to the mixture, and stir until it’s totally dissolved. Turn off the heat, and let the pot sit for about five minutes. Skim off any foam from the top. Add the chopped basil and give the mixture a good stir.
Ladle the jam mixture into a quart-sized mason jar (or whatever jars you prefer). Cover the top with parchment paper and secure it; cool slightly on the counter. Place in refrigerator to store. It will need about a day to fully set.
Preserves keep for a month in the fridge or a year in the freezer.
Strawberry Jam Ice Cream
Makes about a quart of ice cream
Calling this strawberry jam ice cream is a little misleading: The resulting ice cream doesn’t taste like jam. It tastes like creamy, milky, thick strawberry puree with wonderful sweetness and a slight tart kick. I’d love to add chopped dark chocolate next time, but I’d love to add chopped dark chocolate to every ice cream.
Oh, and also: This ice cream is especially nice topped with a few dollops of homemade jam.
Combine coconut milk, jam, coconut sugar (if desired for added sweetness) and vanilla in blender. Pour into ice cream machine and follow manufacturer directions.