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From pirouettes to parfaits

May/June 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Former ballet dancer livens menus with strawberry desserts


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Ventura pastry chef Anastashia Chavez draws inspiration from nearby strawberry fields to create desserts for several local restaurants, including The 2686 Kitchen in Ventura. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Inspired by local strawberries, Ventura pastry chef Anastashia Chavez creates desserts that elevate restaurant menus and even pair nicely with craft beer. It's an interesting specialty for someone who once earned her living as a ballet dancer.

An injury abruptly ended Chavez's dancing career several years ago, but in her time spent recuperating, she found a new passion in butter, sugar, flour and eggs. That motivated her to enroll in Apicius, a culinary institute in Florence, Italy, where she refined her baking skills and enjoyed "one of the best experiences" of her life.

"I didn't end up missing dance as much as I thought I would," she said. "I love to cook, so that is what changed everything."

Today, Chavez operates her own catering business and develops desserts for three area restaurants. For her, sweet inspiration comes from strawberry fields just a few miles away.

"Local strawberries are gorgeous," Chavez said. "They are huge, juicy and sweet and beautiful."


With Chavez in the kitchen, unlikely ingredient pairings add surprising pops of flavor to trifles and other desserts. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Star of the show

Chavez's hand-crafted desserts adorn an entire case at her home-base restaurant, The 2686 Kitchen in Ventura, which specializes in global flavors, hearty salads, sandwiches and appetizers. She also provides desserts for Barrelhouse 101 in Ventura, a taproom featuring 101 beers as well as appetizers, burgers and desserts, and Ojai Beverage Co., a bar in Ojai serving casual bites, salads and burgers.

"Strawberries are very versatile," Chavez said. "They can pair with everything—citrus, chocolate, champagne—pretty much all along the food spectrum."

Strawberries star in many of her desserts, including cheesecake, which she features on all her menus.

"I make a strawberry-swirl cheesecake with mascarpone instead of just cream cheese. That's my Italian influence," she said, describing the delicate, buttery-rich soft cheese that hails from Italy's Lombardy region.

Another standout dish is a seasonal cobbler filled with mixed berries and apples, and served with a strawberry swirl ice cream. The ice cream is made with a strawberry jam that can also be drizzled on ice cream, used in a parfait or eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon.

"I love jam, and strawberry jam is my favorite," Chavez said. "I'm not a big fan of incredibly sweet jam, so mine is a little more on the savory side, which is why I add tarragon as kind of a licorice flavor. You get different pops of flavor. You get sweet, but the strawberry comes through."


Beer with berries? Yes! Chavez infuses a traditional English trifle with fresh tarragon and sour ale, paying tribute to her Italian training and love of craft beer. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Beer and berries

Taking inspiration from the local craft-brew scene, Chavez creates beer-infused desserts at Barrelhouse 101.

"There are many different styles of beers that go really well with different desserts. It's an experiment every time because the beers are all made differently," said Chavez, who encourages social media followers to #eatyourbeer.

"When pairing with strawberries, there's a lot of wild, sour ales that are sweet like wine, and using them with the fruit just enhances that fruity, tart texture and taste," she said. Stouts tend to work well in desserts containing chocolate, caramel, bananas or spices, she added, but she warned against adding beer to custards because "the alcohol reacts weird with the cream and won't set well."


Chavez was once a professional ballet dancer, but now the kitchen is her stage. Here, she sprinkles powdered sugar on a Meyer lemon tart before topping it with a strawberry-based compote. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Sweet or savory

Although desserts are a passion for Chavez, she finds ways to craft less-sweet versions with savory notes that appeal to modern palates.

"The sugary, hurts-your-teeth dessert—it's nostalgic, definitely. Having a cupcake as a kid is great," Chavez said, "but food trends these days have more of an added savory element."

Strawberries shine in desserts, but are also a natural fit for a no-sugar-added treat any time of day.

"While people love to indulge in fancy desserts, we also hear from a lot of folks looking for the simpler and healthier side of snacking," California Strawberry Commission spokeswoman Jodi Reinman said.

There are plenty of options when it comes to snacking on strawberries, Reinman pointed out, especially because they can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory ways.

"Most folks love to eat strawberries as is, but there are simple ways to make them even more snackable," she said. "For example, dip them in dark chocolate or swirl in sour cream or Greek yogurt and then dust with a little brown sugar."

For strawberry farmer Phil McGrath, "nothing is better than eating them out in the field, but I think we've all grown up with strawberry shortcake, which is unbelievable, or a strawberry smoothie. And it is pretty amazing when you start combining a fruit in a green salad. It really does complement the flavors."


Organic farmer Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo says there's nothing better than eating fresh strawberries out in the field. Strawberries are the No. 1 crop grown in Ventura County. Photo: © 2019 Tony Pinto

Growing the best berries

McGrath, of McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo, grows organic fruits and vegetables year-round for sale to local restaurants, at farmers markets, through the farm's community-supported agriculture program and at its roadside stand along Highway 101. The family also operates a U-pick location, where visitors can gather their fill of the sun-warmed berries each spring.

McGrath's family first planted strawberries in the late 1960s, and he has been growing organic strawberries since 1995. His go-to varieties are the Gaviota and the Seascape, older varieties offering what he calls superior taste.

Strawberries are the No. 1 crop grown in Ventura County, with McGrath and his peers producing about 353,000 tons annually. The area is one of several strawberry-growing regions in the state, along with Santa Maria and the Central Coast near Watsonville. In 2018, California farmers grew more than 1.8 billion pounds of strawberries, nearly 90 percent of the nation's crop. California-grown strawberries are available year-round, with peak season running from April through August.

California's coastal climate is unmatched in providing ideal growing conditions for strawberries, resulting in fruit of the highest quality. That's a boon for the berry's many fans in the state and across the nation, as well as the chefs who showcase it.

"The California berries are what we want," Chavez said. "We are so blessed to be able to have our hands on them immediately. We have good relationships with a lot of local farmers."

Christine Souza


Photo courtesy of California Strawberry Festival

Celebrating strawberries

With California farmers growing nearly 90 percent of the nation's strawberry crop, it's no wonder there are multiple festivals throughout the state to celebrate the strawberry.

The California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard, for example, typically draws a crowd of about 60,000 people. The annual event, which began in 1984 in tribute to Ventura County's main crop, is set for May 18-19 this year and features more than 50 food booths, celebrity chef demonstrations, arts and crafts, and family fun including a strawberry pie-eating contest. Festival-goers will eat about 1.5 million strawberries during the two days, with proceeds going to local charitable organizations and to fund scholarships.

Here's a look at some of the other strawberry festivals this summer:

Recipe

Strawberries and cream trifle with sour ale and fresh tarragon


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