We are in the midst of strawberry season here in Halifax, and I couldn’t be happier! Strawberries bring me right back to my grandmother’s garden, we would pick berries and then spend the afternoon mixing and rolling out pie dough. My grandmother was a complicated woman, she had a difficult life and mental health issues, a combination of factors that made some of our interactions challenging. That being said, my memories of cooking with her are all positive and I am often amazed at the power the combination of a few simple ingredients has to bring people together.
I spoke about the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen a few posts back, it is essentially a list that is revised every year, indicating which crops have the highest levels of pesticides. Why bring this up now? Because my superfood ingredient of the week, the mighty strawberry, just happens to be at the top of the dirty dozen list. They have been high on the list for several years now, which means that we keep an eye out for organic strawberries and very rarely buy conventional. They are more expensive, but reducing our chemical load is important to us on a lot of levels, so we buy less and appreciate the heck out of them when we do indulge.
Buying in season also helps; while organic strawberries are not as plentiful at the market as their conventional counterparts I was able to source these care of Taproot Farms, a lovely organic farm that retails through Noggins at the Halifax Seaport Market and Alderney Landing in Dartmouth. Frozen organic berries are another great option, especially during winter months when fresh berries are nowhere to be found here in the great white north. An excellent option would be to reach out to your local farmer, buy as many organic berries as you can while they are in season and freeze them yourself.
I referenced two of my favourite sources while researching strawberries, The World’s Healthiest Foods and Dr. Michael Gregor’s NutritionFacts.org. Both sites are well researched, with links to an abundance of medical studies. According to my research, strawberries are very high in Vitamin C, an antioxidant that assists in boosting the immune system and is highly beneficial with regards to heart health. They contain manganese and folate, and are anti-inflammatory, which is one of the major benefits of consuming berries. Strawberries also rate low on the glycemic index, making them beneficial for blood sugar regulation.
I came up with this Vegan Strawberry & Rhubarb Panna Cotta recipe after finding an abundance of these lovely ingredients at the Halifax Seaport Market. I considered a few different strawberry rhubarb pairings, but ultimately decided to challenge myself with something outside of my comfort zone. I was pretty thrilled with the end result, and now have a fancy schmancy dessert for our next dinner party, one that just happens to be fairly straightforward to put together. This post contains two recipes, one for a strawberry rhubarb compote (great paired with a number of different foods, including oatmeal) and a second recipe for a panna cotta, which uses the compote as both an ingredient and a delicious topping.
This panna cotta comes together with the help of a pretty awesome ingredient known as agar agar. Why the double name? I am not sure, but it works like a charm. Agar agar is derived from red algae (aka seaweed) and functions much in the same way as gelatin, acting as a gelling agent for a variety of different foods. And if the word “seaweed” threw you off, not to worry, it does not taste like the sea. In fact it dissolves easily into liquid and does not affect the flavour in any way. I had a supply of agar agar powder on hand, however if you find yourself in Halifax, I have seen it on the shelf at the Organic Earth Market. If you purchase flakes rather than powder you can up the amount you use (1 Tbsp flakes to 1 tsp powder), or simply grind it in a spice grinder so that you are left with a fine powder.
If you can’t do nuts, the 1 cup cashews and 1 ½ cup water can be swapped for a can of coconut milk. Enjoy!
Strawberry Rhubarb Compote
2 cups organic strawberries (fresh or frozen)
2 cups rhubarb
6 Tbsp maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla extract
Add ingredients to a pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook until fruit has broken down to a mushy consistency (about 10-15 minutes, based on your cooking temperature). Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
1 cup cashews, soaked
1 ½ cups water
¾ cup strawberry rhubarb compote (see recipe above)
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp lemon zest
2 tsp agar agar powder
Combine all of the ingredients, except for the agar agar powder in a blender (I used my nutribullet) and process until smooth. Bring mixture to a boil on the stovetop and whisk in agar agar to dissolve. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes, then transfer the mixture to ramekins. I used six three-inch ramekins.
Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, run a knife around the edge of the ramekin to gently release. You can put a layer of parchment at the bottom, but I found it wasn’t necessary, it came out easily with a bit of gentle nudging with my knife.
When the panna cotta begins to release, flip the ramekin upside down on your hand (my choice, as I put a layer of compote underneath) or directly on your plate. Serve with the remaining compote. If you want to make things super easy for yourself (or want to show off some fancy ceramics) you can serve the panna cotta in the ramekins and simply top with a bit of compote.