Bountiful sun and rain has sent the flora into overdrive. Grain Full is the name of this season when all things flourish, including the weeds that turn my tidy hillside into a jungle. It’s all I can do to keep everything just under control. But like a diamond in the rough, plump, dense, fruity, and mildly sweet ruby red wild strawberries hide amongst the tangle of grasses and vines.
Everything we forage and gather from the wild up to this point requires a step or two to render them delicious. But not these berries. While many make jams of them, I prefer to pluck them one by one as I spot them and pop them into my mouth (after a quick check for bugs) like fresh candy. The burst of berry flavor hits the tongue like a ray of sunshine. Like the first day I shed my shoes to walk barefoot on the warm earth, it grounds me in the feeling that summer has arrived.
Jellies feel just right this time of year, cooling us from the inside in much the way warm soups warm us in winter. Jellies are light, refreshing, and infinitely variable. They are neutral and friendly to delicate early summer flavors like spruce tips, honey, and mugwort. They can be made of just about anything, and molded into any form. They close a meal without weighing you down. And they beg for seasonal garnishes, perfectly showcasing all the beautiful things like thistle petals and wild strawberries.
In Japan we make jellies with kanten, made from a red algae in the Gelidiaceae family. Unlike gelatin, it sets at room temperature, making it a more useful and flexible gelling agent and its plant based origin means it’s low in calories and high in dietary fiber. It’s harvested and dried in the coldest months, December to February, inspiring a name that translates to winter heaven.
Kanten is often said to be equivalent to agar, made of a red algae in the Rhodophyceae family, but it differs in texture. Whereas agar sets into a wobbly, gelatin like texture, kanten has the potential to set into a firmer, smoother texture. But I generally go light with it to make a jelly that sets just enough to hold its form but dissolves quickly on the tongue. This latest incarnation features a single noichigo floating in yomogi jelly. Wild strawberries and mugwort are both hyper seasonal weeds running wild this time of year. Cool, herbaceous, and fruity, this dessert version of a mildly sweetened ice tea is the perfect pick me up on increasingly muggy afternoons.