My mom called me last week to tell me she’d eaten the first of the berries from her newly planted patch. “It was amazing,” she sighed, “like they used to be when you were young.” While I can’t say for sure how good store-bought strawberries were when I was a kid, I do know that 20-some years of agribusiness hasn’t done the strawberry any favors. Typically, they are as big as they are bland, streaked with white inside and dry as a sun-baked bone. They contain only the barest hint of what they could be were they ripened to a bright red by the sun, picked in season and eaten immediately.
Craigie on Main, a local restaurant, makes an admirable proclamation on their menu, “sorry, no tomatoes til August.” It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that local tomatoes eaten in season are pretty much the only tomatoes worth serving and eating. While it might seem sad to not have a tomato at any other time of the year, it turns that moment in which local tomatoes are available into a celebration of the perfection to be found in eating locally and seasonally. It’s in that spirit that I also advocate a “sorry, no strawberries ’til June” position, but you know what? It’s June!
This is the strawberry moment for New England. The fields are full of juicy red fruit, ready to tumble from the stem into an outstretched hand. And that’s just what they did on a recent trip out to Western Massachusetts where we spent the morning picking.
Even the plants in my newly inherited community garden plot are bearing fruit, despite being uncared for over the winter. Next year I expect they will be even more plentiful, but this year they are good only for a quick garden snack, which is probably fine since I had so many other berries to deal with from the picking trip.
There’s little that can improve upon the experience of a perfectly ripe strawberry, heavy with sun-warmed juice, but a freshly plucked mint leaf is a nice touch, the cool sharpness contrasting with subtle sweet-tart warmth.
If you do insist on messing about with these perfect berries though, I can’t think of many better ways than to go with the classic strawberry shortcake. Of course, I really can’t help but mess about, which is how this one-off shortcake was born. Thinking of the natural affinity between strawberries and oranges and a less obvious connection between berries and astringent herbs, I employed my orange-rosemary sugar to make spelt biscuits with lots of flavor and a little more substance than usual, but with all the flaky tender-crumbed charm of a standard shortcake. Instead of macerating the strawberries with sugar, a process usually employed to soften the berries slightly and make them give up some of their juices, I tossed the already juicy and soft berries with a strawberry syrup, made with instruction from the new and wonderful book, The Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Sweet Preserves.
The syrup is a simple matter of macerating the berries with sugar and letting them sit overnight before cooking them down, pureeing and straining the mixture. It yields a gorgeous thick syrup that is purely, deliciously full of strawberry flavor. It’s wonderful over waffles and refreshing mixed into sparkling water or sparkling wine (I recommend Moscato d’Asti) for a fun brunch drink that mixes things up from the traditional mimosa.
Speaking of tradition, it’s as good as written law around here that when there are fresh, local strawberries on hand there must also be strawberry shortcake. So, we had back to back shortcake. The second time ’round though I needed it to be an easily transported dessert to bring to a party. Cake form seemed like the perfect way to go, all assembled and easy to head out with. Playing on the orange tones of my first orange-rosemary shortcake, I incorporated some Grand Marnier to lend a sweet citrus flavor to the whipped cream. Also, instead of a plain vanilla bean cake, I made a rustic cornmeal cake to add pleasant texture and sweetness from the fresh milled corn.
One note though, as pretty as it is to have the green tops on the strawberries topping this cake, it’s a total suckers move and I implore you to resist it! I can’t tell you how many ways in which I should have known better, but the beauty of the berries with the tops still on conspired to drag me down as I opted, thoughtlessly, for aesthetics over eating. A choice that meant I later had to sit, shamefaced, as my friends picked berries out of the mess of whipped cream to remove the tops, which of course they couldn’t enjoyably eat. Sigh.
I tried to make it up to them though with my favorite pie, strawberry rhubarb. Following the thought about cornmeal and strawberries, which worked so well in the cornmeal shortcake, I made a tender pâte sucrée with cornmeal and coconut oil instead of margarine or oil. The coconut was a very mild flavor influence on the end result and worked surprisingly well in the crust which was wonderfully flaky, light and tenderly sweet against the tart fruit filling.
Last year I served my strawberry rhubarb pie with basil ice cream, but this year my basil is not incredibly bountiful. My lemon verbena could swallow up the yard, but the basil is sort of a no-go. It’s sad. There is enough to work smaller projects with though, so I made a dessert that caught my eye in Johnny Iuzzini’s Dessert FourPlay a couple months ago. In the original version, Iuzzini fills strawberry mochi with strawberry rhubarb compote and serves it with basil fluid gel. I took some liberties to make the dessert a little faster to assemble and different in flavor, pairing my fresh strawberry jam filling with a freeze-dried rambutan mochi (reasoning that if I find an affinity between strawberries and lychees, rambutans would work as well) and serving it with Thai basil sauce. My mochi technique could use some work (I blame the leakage on my imperfect motor control with a hand still swollen from carpal tunnel release surgery) but overall, I adored this light little dessert and its intriguing Southeast Asian flavors.
A more straightforward, classic pairing between strawberries and chocolate was something I noticed had fallen by the wayside this season. I guess I’ve been taking my chocolate pretty straight these days and have been in a particular rut with the super dry, dark and lovely 84% Theo single origin bar from Ghana. So good. But I digress. Feeling that these amazing strawberries could make chocolate even more magical, I whipped up a very random pudding of organic baby bananas, dark chocolate, anise, chilies, cinnamon, nutmeg and espresso salt, sweetened with date syrup and topped with fresh berries. It was meant as a quick treat of no consequence but was so good, I’m pledged to make it again and actually write down every element of the recipe since several friends have proclaimed it’s one of the best things ever, period.
After finally getting my strawberry and chocolate fix, I realized that I’d sort of been enjoying the two together all along in my breakfast bowl. Homemade cocoa nib granola with fresh berries isn’t quite chocolate dipped strawberries, but it’s more than satisfying at seven am.
Thinking about how nicely nibs complemented strawberries, I sprinkled a few Taza chocolate covered nibs into my mini tarts. They provided a nice bittersweet crunch against the fruit and buttery almond crust.
Almonds are a natural complement to strawberries. Their rich sweetness and lightly bitter edge are perfect against tart berry notes. And there’s a reason why strawberry cheesecake is so popular; sweet tangy cheese has its richness both cut slightly and complemented by each bite of berry. So, an almond crusted and amaretto spiked cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries glazed with hot strawberry syrup and sprinkled with almond slices seemed like just the thing.
I’ve had a lot of semi-successful vegan cheese-ish substances around lately as I’ve been experimenting to find one that really suits me. None of them are perfect, but with a good amount of fiddling, they’ve all turned into tasty additions to desserts and ice cream bases. The mixture that I turned into cheesecake was also spun off into a nice mellow farmer’s cheese that went wonderfully with fresh strawberry rhubarb jam (again from the Joy of Jams, but with much less sugar than called for).
In fact, I made several jams from the new book: plain strawberry, strawberry rhubarb and strawberry kiwi. With such deliciously fresh tasting jams are hanging around the house, it seemed pretty much obvious that I needed to make a delicious delivery mechanism for them. So when King Aurthur flour had a free-shipping deal, I refilled my stock of organic high gluten flour and made a batch of bagels from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, some coated into sesame seeds and some streaked with pasilla chili powder and topped with chili lime Hawaiian sea salt.
Toasted and spread equally with fresh made jam and strawberry cream cheese, these were a delicious promise that the joy of strawberries in season can last as long as the jars of jam do, even if we’ve only got another week or two to enjoy them fresh.