What's in Season: Strawberries
Red, Juicy and Full of Summer's Perfume
On Saturday I made a fast subway dash to the Union Square Greenmarket to buy four duck breasts from Quattro, the extraordinary game producer from Pleasant Valley, New York. While I'm happy to buy and cook with the easier to find D'Artagnan duck breasts, I prefer Quattro's for their more subtle game flavor, smaller size, and a ratio of more meat to less fat.
I'm not the only one who loves them; I've learned the hard way that if your goal is to buy Quattro's duck breasts, you have to go early as these are the first to sell out. I was at their stand by 9:30 a.m. and just one package remained after I got mine.
To have missed out on the duck would have been a big disappointment because family was coming for an early dinner on Sunday night and with the weather being so hot and humid, my menu was lots of salads arranged on a huge platter, along with slices of the duck, all served at room temperature.
I cooked the duck by first searing the fatty side (about 4 minutes in a blazing hot oven-proof pan until some of the fat rendered off and the surface got golden brown and crispy). I then turned them skin side up, drained off the rendered fat, and put the pan directly into a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes until medium rare (about 170 degrees with an instant thermometer). Let them rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.
The duck may have been my prompt for going to the Greenmarket but while there I had to see what else I could add to my Sunday meal. That's when I had this movie-like moment, like Cary Grant in "Charade" when he was standing in the Paris stamp market and solved the plot's mystery when he flashed on all the stamp dealers all around him. Only I wasn't seeing stamps everywhere; I was seeing strawberries. Table after table was filled with green quart-sized paper baskets filled with small local red berries. Just the week before there had only been a few early baskets but now the farmers were handing out free samples -- as if we really needed them since the berries' perfume was so aggressive we could taste them with our eyes shut and mouths closed.
Local summer strawberries are so remarkably superior to those that are sold the rest of the year that they're almost a totally different fruit. Their taste can be so forward, so sweet, so complex that it's best to not fuss with them. They're also so cheerful. My favorite kitchen towel is white linen with a border of bright red strawberries and even with it's crumpled and stained, it still can make me smile. More than any other food, certainly more than any other fruit, strawberries have a kind of wholesome nostalgia. As if we each could have had a grandmother who made strawberry jam or strawberry tarts left to cool on a windowsill. I certainly did not, but yet the Capra-like image is so familiar it's as if I had.
We Can Thank The Birds …
The name strawberry is thought to have been originally descriptive: a mother plant will "strew" new stems and plants as it propagates and the berries also are strewn throughout the plant on long vines that grow like runners. We've been loving strawberries for a very long time: there's proof of the name being around since about 1000 AD and the pretty berries have been featured by artists since the middle ages. Wild strawberries originated in Europe and because birds love their sweetness, the berries were easily distributed both there and across North America where climates suited them. The plants were so robust and plentiful that strawberries were not even cultivated as a garden plant in America until the late 18th century.
We may love them for their sweetness but strawberries are also good for us. They're high in vitamin C and potassium and other important nutrients and have merely 45 calories a cup and no fat. But they're also a fragile fruit. Here are a few tips to get the best result:
- Strawberries are available year-round but are at their peak from late spring through the summer months. Always try to buy locally grown berries for best flavor.
- When you buy a basket of berries and they come in a mesh or webbed basket (as opposed to an opaque paper basket or box), lift the basket and look on the bottom to check the state of the berries. You're looking for berries that are moldy or mushy. This is particularly important to do with berries sold during the off-season and which have traveled a longer distance than from a local farm.
- Look for strawberries that are bright red and glossy, a bright green top and a great aroma.
- For the best flavor, eat the berries the day you buy them and don't refrigerate them. Instead leave them at room temperature, out of the sun, left in the basket in which you bought them.
- Wash the berries just before you eat or cook with them by rinsing with cool water and draining completely. A good way to dry the berries is to first put them in a colander, shaking off any excess moisture, and then spread them out in a single layer on a paper towel to dry completely. If you wash the berries too far in advance, they'll get mushy.
- If you aren't going eat or cook with the berries the same day you bought them, leave them unwashed and wrapped in plastic (loosely wrapped, as with a plastic bag or large tear of plastic wrap) and stored in the refrigerator. Chilled, the berries will last for two to three days.
- Strawberries taste better when at room temperature than when they're chilled so if you've had to store them in the refrigerator for any period of time, remove them about a half hour before you plan to eat them.
- Be gentle when handling the berries as they can bruise easily. If you inadvertently bruise them or find some of the berries are softening, use them right away. A small number of crushed strawberries can be added to a glass of seltzer along with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a little superfine sugar, or added to sweetened iced tea. It's a shame to waste even one local strawberry!
Serving and Cooking With Strawberries
When we find really great ingredients, we should celebrate them but usually it's best not to fuss. Here are some of the ways that I plan to enjoy the new local strawberry season:
- Sliced with a small drizzle of aged Balsamic vinegar. This is when you use that special 12-year-old little bottle that your brought back as a souvenir from Italy, or perhaps someone gave to you as a gift. The sweet of the berry and the mellow, slightly sweet acid of the vinegar is an unexpected but perfect balance. I only like to do this with good Balsamic but you can experiment to see what you like or have on hand.
- With a dab of sour cream and a sprinkle of brown sugar. I mentioned this in last week's newsletter as a perfect hot weather dessert and we received a note from a reader, Susan, who told us this combination is said to have originated at -- and been named after -- a now-gone restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called The Blue Strawberry.
- When the berries are small, like those I bought this weekend, I like them best with a small squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sugar.
- Left whole and raw and placed on top of pastry cream in a tart shell to make a summer strawberry tart.
- Classic strawberry shortcake. We love our recipe for biscuits but maybe you have a favorite you'd prefer to use. Or buy a package at a bakery. Add sliced berries and whipped cream. See our link to our recipe.
- As a side to your favorite recipe for chocolate mousse or chocolate pudding. Whipped cream optional.
- Sliced and tossed in a green salad to which you've also added toasted pecans or walnuts. Dress with a vinaigrette made with either Balsamic or raspberry vinegar and walnut oil.
- Add to your favorite salsa recipe to bring it into season. A simple version is 1 pint of diced berries with 1 cup diced papaya or mango, 2 tablespoons cilantro, 2 tablespoons diced red onion, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, 1 teaspoon olive oil, and salt. You could add 2 teaspoons finely minced jalapeno for heat.
- Sliced and added to a simple strawberry cake recipe. We've found one by Martha Stewart that could be a perfect dessert or served at a special breakfast. We've added a link to the recipe below.
- Feeling really lazy? Just buy the most fragrant local strawberries you can find, rinse them, leaving on their stems and serve in a bowl alongside a plate of something store bought: brownies, slices of angel food cake, or a wedge of a creamy and bloomy St. Andre cheese.
So how did I finish my weekend dinner party menu? My local strawberries were served whole and unadorned, stems left on, and passed around the table for everyone to add to a scoop of home-made vanilla gelato. I've just finished testing some recipes from Gelato!, a new cookbook by Pamela Sheldon Johns (see our review), and her Vanilla Gelato was a milky and sweet perfect partner to my Greenmarket strawberries.
The duck and salads were finished, a cold Pouilly-Fume got emptied, shoes were kicked off under the table, and summer, at least in my kitchen, was officially launched.