What's in Season: Strawberries

Red, Juicy and Full of Summer's Perfume

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:


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:

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.





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