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Woodchuck puts short summer growing season in perspective

A run in with "Chuck" heightened awareness of edible seasonal windfalls, strawberries among them.

I'd like to devote this week's column to woodchuck eradication. That's a food issue, right? Well, it is at my house, where they take their liberties and nibble as they please. We seem to have attracted some sort of serpentile boneless variety that can slither thorugh the fine rectangles of the fence.

He or she also has a pretty discriminating palate; a bit of a food snob, this one. Likes just the feathery tops of my hard-won fennel bulbs. She even ate my radicchio, the bitterest Italian green you can grow, even without the cushion of lemon or parmesan which, frankly, I need with mine.

I'm so frustrated I feel like slipping parmesan rinds amongst the plants. Or maybe I should go and salt and pepper everything for her.

Okay, before I start to sound like a growly old grump, I should try to put this into perspective. The point is, we are all protective of our gardens because this fresh stuff is fleeting. I know that I have put plenty of foresight and work into my little plot, and I don't want to miss out on the fruits (or the vegetables) of that labor.

The woodchuck is just a case in point: I had no idea how much I was looking forward to that radicchio until one morning when I caught the sight of Chuck's abstract mowing job out of the corner of my eye.

This entire episode has taught me to keep my eyes on the horizon and to make sure I take advantage of all edible seasonal windfalls.

So I plowed through two flats of strawberries before they wilted, this week, and that made me feel a little better.

In recent years, I have been focusing my jam-making efforts on strawberry, which is, hands-down, my very favorite. I've made cooked strawberry jams, some with full (50-50) sugar and some with only 40 percent, and I've made the uncooked freezer jam with pectin, and I think I like the freezer jam best.

The cooked one has an old-fashioned appeal, but the freezer jam tastes the brightest.

But first, I wanted to try a strawberry jello mold I had been dreaming about: something very simple and full of strawberry flavor, to serve with whipped cream.

I love the slippery, melting texture of gelatin, but I wanted a recipe that didn't add any boxed jello to my beautiful, u-picked strawberries; they're already at the height of flavor, and I didn't want to mask it. I didn't find such a recipe, so I had to make one up, which is fine because even the mistakes were delicious this week.

I measured out a bunch of strawberries and put half of them (cleaned, of course) into a saucepan with some sugar, lemon juice and water, and then started mashing them over the heat. After awhile, the pulp floated up in a bright red liquid. It tasted so fragrant and strong. And then I thought to add ground cardamom, which I sometimes add to my jam.

Something about the way these two flavors intersect really gets to me. Strawberry and cardamom, they taste like each other, but also opposed to each other. They're the definition of complementary.

The fresh cardamom has a really fresh, citrusy aroma that reminds me of lemongrass, mixed with oranges and maybe some basil. And when it hits the strawberries, I'm always amazed how it makes them taste just a little fresher and more of themselves, without asserting itself too much.

But, anyway, after that I added some bloomed gelatin to the liquid and then strained the whole thing and left it to cool. When it began to set softly, I stirred the remaining uncooked crushed strawberries into the gel, so that the mold would have some texture.

It took a couple of runs, but in the end it worked beautifully, tasted even better, and looked like a jewel, just the kind of treat I needed this week. You keep out of it, Chuckie.

Strawberry Cardamom

Molded Dessert

2 pounds fresh strawberries, divided

1 cup sugar, divided

1 teaspoon ground cardamom*

One-fourth cup fresh lemon juice

2 and one-third cups water

3 envelopes gelatin

Wash the strawberries and divide them into two equal piles. Trim the green tops from both batches.

Combine half of the strawberries, three-fourths cup sugar, ground cardamom, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Mash thoroughly with a potato masher, and then add 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer. Cook gently until the sugar and some of the strawberry pulp have dissolved, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool until it's no longer too hot to touch.

Meanwhile, combine the gelatin and the remaining one-third cup water in a small dish and mix together. When the strawberry mixture has cooled a bit, add the gelatin to it and stir until the gelatin has dissolved. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve and press on the pulp with a rubber spatula to extract all juice. Discard the pulp. Stir the juice until it cools a bit.

Meanwhile, mash the remaining cleaned strawberries with the remaining one-fourth cup sugar and set aside.

Chill the strawberry juice in the refrigerator until it just begins to thicken, and then fold in the fresh crushed strawberries. Pour the mixture into a small bundt or jello mold. Chill thoroughly.

To unmold, run a thin knife around the perimeter of the mold, and around the center if it has one, and dip the bottom into a deep bowl of hot water until you can feel that it has loosened a bit.

Turn a platter upside down on top of the mold and flip the entire thing over. If the jello doesn't release, dip the bottom again in the hot water.

Serve this in slices, with lightly sweetened homemade whipped cream.