The strawberry perfectly illustrates the convoluted, often arduous, journey many fruits and vegetables have taken to our plates. How this odd little fruit, indigenous to most of the world for thousands of years, compares with the sweet, plump, juicy creature we crave today is a marvel of serendipity.
Happenstance brought the tiny, wild strawberries of the Americas, Virginia in the east and Chile in the west, to France between the 16th and 17th centuries where they met the local variety and fell in love, botanically that is. A bit simplistic, perhaps, but true romance is often like that.
And we do love strawberries. So much so that the flavour and scent has been artificially reproduced and used in everything from lip balm and soap to candy and beverages. Read your labels, is all I can say.
Unlike the exotic lemons and pineapples of the day, the hardy strawberry could be grown in a home garden and be enjoyed by prince and pauper alike, a most egalitarian fruit. While hardy in that respect, the strawberry is a fragile fruit. You won’t find a bin of berries to sift through like cherries. They will be in punnets or the ubiquitous clear plastic clam-shell containers, sadly hard to avoid. Try to avoid any obviously moldy fruit and overly soft berries. Look for a green pliable calyx and a bright red colour. Check your berries as soon as you get home and discard any moldy ones (one rotten strawberry, as they say… or is that apples?).
Here’s a treat found a few years ago in a Bon Appétit magazine, called Frosé or frozen rosé. Start by freezing a bottle of fairly robust rosé, possibly a Pinot Noir, in a 13 X 9 pan the night before your brunch or garden party. Bring 125g (½ cup) sugar and 125 ml (½ cup) water to a boil. Add 300g (8-10 oz) hulled sliced strawberries, remove from heat to infuse for an hour at room temperature. Strain the syrup into a jar without pressing on the solids and chill. On the day of your gathering, scrape the rosé (the alcohol keeps it from freezing solid) into a blender with about 150g (½ cup) fresh sliced strawberries, 75 ml (2½ oz) freshly squeezed lemon juice, 100 ml (3½ oz) strawberry syrup, 250 ml (1 cup) crushed ice and puree.
Put the blender container directly into the freezer for at least another 30 minutes to an hour. Puree again and serve right away in pretty chilled glasses, garnished with a whole berry and a sprig of mint. This is really good and very festive and sounds like more work than it is – a good combination!
Don’t refrigerate strawberries unless you aren’t going to use them right away, which you really ought to. If you do, poke a few holes in a plastic bag and line with a couple of paper towels… moisture is the enemy when storing strawberries, even for a day or two. And don’t wash them until right before you use them.
My preference is to eat fresh, local and, most importantly, seasonal strawberries simply, with only a dollop of cream. The exception is strawberry shortcake, in my estimation the perfect dessert. If you happen to grow lemon verbena, tear a few leaves into some heavy cream, cover and refrigerate overnight. Strain and whip with a bit of sugar for your shortcake. A strawberry trifle can also be a thing of joy. Splash a little Cointreau on the cake instead of sherry and use lots and lots of berries, most sliced and some slightly mashed. Or you can mix in a little of the roasted strawberries with the fresh. This is a good trick for shortcake too.
Roasting strawberries might sound a bit odd, but roasting intensifies the flavour. Hull and quarter about a pound (450g) of strawberries, and then, in a 13 X 9 baking dish, toss with a good drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a little lemon zest. Roast for 15-20 minutes in a hot 425 F oven.
Just as rhubarb and asparagus represent spring, strawberries are the quintessential fruit of summer. The good fortune to eat fruit so exquisite, locally grown and in season, is impossible to resist. Check out Sunterra’s new endeavour, Sunterra Greenhouse in Acme. Their Duchess strawberries, picked ripe, are available at their markets. As well, Broxburn’s Strawberry Festival, held the Saturday before labour day in September, is lots of fun and you can buy strawberries already picked or pick your own.