Summer’s not complete without strawberries, those tiny hand grenades of flavor.
Succulent, juicy and delicious, strawberries are among the most popular fruits around.
I have no statistics on this, which at this point is probably a good thing, but most strawberries are probably eaten straight out of the container or, better still, right off the vine. Many others are sliced and find their way to the top of a bowl of Wheaties.
But that doesn’t mean they cannot be dressed up a bit and taken out on the town; strawberries can be great when used to punctuate other dishes. And not just strawberry shortcake, either.
Back in the 1970s, people began dropping a strawberry in a flute of champagne. It was lovely, it was elegant and the fact that the strawberry added essentially no flavor to the drink did not detract from the experience of having it. The strawberry took something that was already great, champagne, and made it even better.
These days, some folks take that same idea and do it one better: They extract the juice from the berries by squeezing them through a sieve and add a few drops of it (or a lot more, if you like) to a glass of champagne or prosecco. But don’t try it with the good stuff, though; that would be a waste and, if it’s really good stuff, an abomination.
Once you’ve squeezed out the juice, there are any number of things you can do with it. Mix it with water sweetened with sugar and give it a sour counterpoint with lime juice, and you have a Strawberry Agua Fresca, a light and refreshing Mexican drink currently taking this nation by storm. Add some of the juice to olive oil and vinegar, and create a strawberry-flavored salad dressing — crumbled feta cheese would make a terrific addition.
Or you could mix it with simple syrup and add the juice to a glass of iced tea or drizzle it over a slice of chocolate cake, a cheesecake or a key lime pie. Try pooling it around a dish of vanilla ice cream.
Of course, if you have strawberries and vanilla ice cream, you could always macerate the strawberries first in balsamic vinegar for an hour before topping the ice cream with both berries and vinegar. “Macerating” fruit means softening it in a liquid, and balsamic vinegar (the sweetest of all vinegars) and strawberries are a classically elegant combination. You can mellow the flavors even more by adding a touch of vanilla to the vinegar before putting in the sliced berries.
If you can’t quite get over the idea of putting balsamic vinegar on your ice cream, you can macerate the strawberries in milder liquids, such as sweet dessert wines. Port and sherry both add lovely complexities to the berries, and both add a pleasant zing to the ice cream.
More time-consuming, but still easy to make, are Strawberry Conserves. Conserves are similar to jam, but the fruit is cooked just long enough to soften and they are made without added pectin. The flavor and texture are more natural that way, though the syrup is a bit more liquid than it is with regular jam.
Fruit contains its own pectin -- the pectin you buy in a powder is derived from fruit -- but strawberries have it in absurdly tiny amounts. Citrus peels, however, are full of pectin. So to get the syrup in strawberry conserves to jell at all, simply add the peel and white pith from an entire lemon as it cooks.
The conserves turned out wonderfully, with a simple and pure flavor of sweetness and strawberries. I have been obsessively putting it on English muffins. I’m sure it would go great on toast and even better on warm, buttery biscuits or croissants, but why bother when there are English muffins in the house?
For dessert, I turned the clock all the way back to the ’50s. Strawberry Whipped-Cream Pie was almost unavoidable during the Eisenhower years, and a few stalwart diners still serve it today. It is simplicity baked in a pie crust: strawberries, sugar, water and cornstarch for thickening, topped with a layer of whipped cream. And it all comes together in just a few minutes.
And the taste? Absolute strawberry goodness. With whipped cream as thick as you want.
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup sliced strawberries
In a small bowl, combine vinegar and vanilla. Add strawberries. Let soak 1 hour before adding to vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 4 servings
- 4 cups strawberries
- 3 cups superfine sugar (see cook’s note)
- Peel of 1 lemon, including white pith
Cook’s note: To make superfine sugar, process regular granulated sugar in a food processor for 20-30 seconds.
Wash the strawberries and remove the green stems (cutting them out wastes less of the fruit than slicing off the tops of the berries). Put the strawberries in a heavy, wide pot. Use a rubber spatula to fold in 1 1/2 cups of the sugar, then bring to a boil over medium-high heat, about 5 minutes (additional liquid is not needed; the moisture from the berries themselves will boil). Continue to boil for 3 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat.
Fold in the remaining sugar, return the pot to the heat and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift the berries from the syrup and spread them out on a plate. Return the pot with the syrup to the heat, add the lemon peel, bring to a boil over medium-high, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the syrup settle, then use a mesh skimmer to skim off any foam. Allow the syrup to cool, then return the berries to the syrup. Cover and set aside until set, about 6 hours or overnight (they will only be lightly set). Remove the lemon peel. Pack the preserves in sterilized jars and refrigerate.
Yield: 4 half-pints
-- “Canal House Cooks Every Day,” by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
STRAWBERRY AGUA FRESCA
- 1 1/2 cups strawberries
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (1/2 lime)
Wash the strawberries, remove the stems and press the berries through a sieve placed over a bowl.
Stir together the water and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Mix with the juice from the strawberries and the lime juice. Serve over ice, with a mint-leaf garnish, if you choose.
Yield: 1 drink
-- From a recipe by Traci Des Jardins, via Cooking Light
STRAWBERRY-BALSAMIC SALAD DRESSING
- 2 tablespoons strawberry puree (see cook’s note)
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup white-wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Feta cheese, optional
Cook’s note: To make strawberry puree, either process a few strawberries in a food processor or, if you don’t want seeds, mash them through a sieve.
Mix together all the ingredients. Whisk vigorously or put in a jar and shake before serving.
Yield: About 3/4 cup
STRAWBERRY CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL
- 2 teaspoons strawberry puree (see cook’s note)
- 1 sugar cube or 1/2 teaspoon sugar
Cook’s note: To make strawberry puree, either process a strawberry or two in a food processor or, if you don’t want seeds, mash them through a sieve.
Place strawberry puree and sugar in bottom of glass and fill with champagne. Garnish rim with a fresh strawberry.
Yield: 1 drink
STRAWBERRY WHIPPED-CREAM PIE
- 1 pie crust
- 1 quart strawberries (about 1 pound)
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- Red food coloring, optional
- Whipped cream
Bake pie crust according to instructions.
Take 3 cups of the strawberries, slice them in half and stir together with confectioners’ sugar. Let stand 1 hour to sweeten.
Slice the remaining 1 cup of berries and bring to a light boil in the water for 2 minutes. Strain, reserving the water, and mash the softened berries through a sieve into a bowl. Return the strawberry juice to the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. While waiting for it to boil, thoroughly mix together the sugar and cornstarch -- you want to make certain the cornstarch does not clump. When the strawberry-water boils, add the sugar-cornstarch mixture and simmer, stirring constantly, until clear and thick.
Stir in a drop or two of red food coloring, if desired.
Place sweetened strawberry halves in the baked pie crust. Pour the glaze over them, and refrigerate overnight to set. Top pie with whipped cream before serving.
Yield: 1 pie
-- Adapted from cooks.com