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Seasons by the Sea: The Sweet, Sweet Strawberry

Mon, 05/29/2023 - 10:41
Homemade shortcake is worth the effort when local strawberries are a featured ingredient.
Laura Donnelly

Strawberry season is about to begin on Long Island, although it's coming a wee bit late due to our cool spring weather. You should definitely start seeing North Fork strawberries at farmers markets now and South Fork strawberries shortly after.

Most of the strawberries we are familiar with are the Driscoll's brand grown in California and available year round. They are uniform in size and shape, relatively uniform in color and taste, and are grown to withstand shipping and refrigeration. Strawberries do not further ripen after harvesting and they are very perishable.

I don't want to be a Debbie Downer but I can assure you that plenty of pesticides have gone into the growing of these commercially available berries. California grows 88 percent of U.S. strawberries, comprising 34,000 acres producing 50,000 pounds per acre per season. Florida and North Carolina are the other two top growers of strawberries in our country. All the more reason to wait for local strawberries to be available for picking or just purchasing.

Strawberries are easy to grow and are cultivated from subarctic Finland to tropical Ecuador, according to Harold McGee in his "On Food and Cooking" tome. This berry is unusual in that its "seeds" grow on the surface of the flesh, not inside, similar to buckwheat and sunflower seeds. These seeds are actually "achenes," miniature dry fruits.

In Europe and Asia, you will find tiny sweet berries called fraises de bois or fragolina, but because of their size, perishability, and the plant's low yield, they are seldom seen in America. However, if you want to try your hand at growing these, I have gotten plants at Green Thumb in Water Mill and had moderate success.

In Japan, the strawberries are insanely sweet, delicious, and expensive. They are grown in plastic greenhouses with honeybee hives to pollinate them. This method gives farmers complete control over the temperature, soil, and air. They mulch them with rice straw. They have utterly charming names like White Jewel, Beautiful Princess, and the Scent of First Love.

Japanese strawberries are now grown in New York, New Jersey, and California by a company called Oishii and you can often find their Omakase variety at the wonderfully esoteric Hen of the Woods market in Southampton. If you are willing to pay upwards of $50 for eight berries, have at it. On my last visit there, I asked if they had any of these ethereally delicious berries (13 degrees on the Brix scale of sweetness compared to approximately 10 degrees for American berries!). They said the berries were starting to fade so they were no longer in the display case. After a little bargaining, I got a dozen deliquescing berries for $25 and they were worth every penny.

There are a lot of farms on the North Fork where you can pick your own or just purchase at the farm stand, among them Wickham's Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, Condzella's Farm in Wading River, and Patty's Berries and Bunches in Mattituck. There is also a huge strawberry festival in Mattituck (June 14 through 18), but the last time I went, it was Driscoll's and commercial sponge cakes. On the South Fork you can get organic strawberries at Balsam Farms in Amagansett, Green Thumb in Water Mill, and Round Swamp Farm, in East Hampton, Montauk, and Bridgehampton.

The beauty of strawberries is that they are best served fresh, although baked into a strawberry rhubarb pie is mighty fine, too. My mother used to serve them with bowls of sour cream and dark brown sugar for dipping. This was heaven for my brothers and I, being allowed to "play" with our food. You can also purchase pre-made meringues, break them up, and layer them with strawberries and whipped cream to make Eton Mess. Loaves and Fishes Food Store almost always has great meringues.

Another old-school and very easy recipe is summer pudding. It is no more than slices of good white bread lining a bowl into which you place a variety of macerated berries, chill, unmold, and serve with whipped cream. 

Remember the fad of pouring a bit of aged Balsamic vinegar over a bowl of strawberries? You can make a cheat version of aged Balsamic vinegar rather than spending $100 for a two-ounce bottle, recipe to follow. My favorite strawberry recipe is shortcakes layered with berries and, yes, whipped cream. I learned a little trick from a fellow pastry chef, Maximo Nunez Martinez, who puts a dab of strawberry jam on the shortcakes to deepen, layer, and intensify the berry flavors.

Get ready for the earliest and best fruit of the season, and I hope you enjoy some of these recipes!

It is very important to not wash your strawberries until just before serving or cooking. If you wash them and then refrigerate, they will become soggy from the moisture.

"Aged" Balsamic Vinegar
This first recipe is from America's Test Kitchen's cheat for $300 aged Balsamic vinegar.

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. port

Combine vinegar, sugar, and port in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer until reduced by half and syrupy. Let cool completely before using and store in an airtight container. Enjoy like a fancy pants. (Their words, not mine.)

Summer Pudding
This recipe is from "The Produce Bible" by Leanne Kitchen. You can use any combination of berries or just strawberries.

Serves four to six.

1 1/4 cups black currants
1 1/4 cups red currants
1 1/4 cups raspberries
1 1/4 cups blackberries
1 1/3 cups strawberries
Sugar to taste
6-8 slices good quality day old white bread, crusts removed
Whipped cream for serving

Put all the berries in a saucepan, except for the strawberries. Add half a cup of water and heat gently until berries begin to collapse. Add strawberries and turn off the heat. Add sugar to taste and set aside to cool. 

Line a four-cup bowl with the bread, cutting a large circle out of one slice for the base, and slicing the rest into fingers to line the sides. Drain a little juice off the fruit mixture and dip one side of each piece of bread in the juice before fitting it, juice side down, into the bowl, leaving no gaps. Do not squeeze or flatten the bread or it will not absorb the juices well.

Fill the center of the bowl with the fruit, reserving any leftovers, and add a little juice. Cover the top with a layer of dipped bread, juice side up, and cover with plastic wrap. Put a plate that fits tightly inside the bowl on top of the plastic wrap to weigh the pudding down. Chill overnight. Carefully turn the pudding onto a serving plate and serve with any reserved berry mixture and whipped cream.

Strawberry Shortcake
I'm not sure where this recipe for shortcakes came from but I think it is from "Chez Panisse Desserts."

Serves 12.

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 cup chilled butter
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. heavy cream (also 3 cups whipped for serving)
4 pints strawberries
Sugar to taste

Combine dry ingredients with butter in a mixing bowl with paddle or do by hand with pastry cutter. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal with a few larger bits of butter. Mix in three-quarters cup cream, just until most of the dry mixture has been moistened. Turn out onto a board and knead a few times until the dough just comes together. Roll to a half-inch thick and cut into squares or circles or whatever shape you like. You can reuse leftover dough to make a few more.

Brush tops with the remaining two tablespoons cream (I like to top with a sprinkle of turbinado sugar as well). Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned and dough is set. Cool on a rack and serve warm.

Wash, dry, and hull the berries. Crush about a quarter of them and slice the rest. Toss with sugar to taste, about one tablespoon per pint, and chill until serving time.

To serve, split the warm shortcakes, top with berries and some whipped cream, and add a bit more cream or berries to the plate if desired. F.Y.I., these shortcakes freeze well and reheat well.

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