For anyone who likes making desserts, one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the spring is the first appearance of strawberries at the local market. That first sweet bite of the season is so incredibly satisfying, suggests so many possibilities, that dessert recipes practically writes themselves. Plump, juicy, fragrant, and full of flavor, strawberries are nature’s reward for our patience throughout the winter, a welcome relief from the sameness of citrus, and a sneak preview of the other summer berries to come. Strawberries are wonderfully versatile and lend themselves to a variety of desserts, from granitas and sorbets to tarts and terrines. And since the season is relatively short, we should, as the saying goes, “get while the gettin’s good.”
Pick your own strawberries or choose the reddest, ripest fruit
Everyone knows that commercially grown strawberries are now in the grocery stores nearly year-round. But sadly, the availability of this fruit has been achieved at the expense of flavor. To truly enjoy the heady flavor of perfectly ripe strawberries, you must eat locally grown berries while they’re in season.
Surely, the way to the best strawberries is to pick them yourself. If you’re lucky enough to live in a rural area, you may have access to “pick-your-own” fruit farms. Picking your own strawberries has several advantages, not the least of which is guaranteed freshness. Strawberries are fragile fruits susceptible to bruising, so the less handling they receive, the better. And there’s no substitute for the sun-warmed, bursting-with-juice, perfectly ripe strawberries picked in the field. Besides, it’s fun to harvest berries yourself.
If you can’t get to a strawberry farm, the next best option is your local farmers’ market or fruit stand. At the farmers’ market, you may have several varieties from which to choose, and you’re generally able, even encouraged, to sample them all. At the peak of the season, even grocery stores will carry good strawberries, though rarely do you have the opportunity to taste. Whatever you do, try to buy strawberries that are locally grown; they’ll have had more time to ripen on the vine than berries shipped across the country.
Buy deep-red berries and then leave them alone
Because good looks don’t necessarily mean good taste, always try to sample before you buy. There are, however, a few good visual clues. Look for plump, fully red berries with dark green leaves still attached, and avoid excessively seedy fruit—a sign of old age and a real nuisance on the teeth. Examine the bottom of the package; damp cardboard may indicate berries that are spoiling. Once you’re home, store the berries in a cool spot (but preferably not the refrigerator—that much cold can dull the fruit’s flavor) and plan to eat them within two or three days. In general, I don’t like to wash berries because they absorb water, which dilutes their flavor. But if you want to wash them, clean them before hulling to avoid filling the cavity with water, and spread the berries out in one layer on paper towels to dry. Or, if you’re feeling particularly luxurious, rinse your berries with Champagne or a fruity wine and let them absorb all they want.
Pair sweet strawberries with tart flavors
I like to turn the first strawberries of spring into a traditional shortcake garnish, but I don’t stop there. Strawberries’ pleasant sweetness makes them perfect partners for more tart flavors, which is why you often see them paired with rhubarb. I like to macerate strawberries with a mixture of sugar and fresh lime or lemon juice for a tart-sweet jumble that’s a perfect refresher for a warm spring day. In summer, I take this idea one step further by turning that combination of strawberries and lemon into a cool “pink lemonade” granita. I also like to pair a dry sparkling wine with strawberries to make a light and elegant strawberry and Champagne terrine.
For textural contrast, serve strawberries with a creamy topping like a billowy sabayon . For an elegant dressing for a dish of strawberries, I like to make the traditional custard sauce known as a sabayon. But instead of using the sweet Marsala that’s traditional in this sauce, I use a complex aged balsamic vinegar to turn this simple sauce into something extraordinary. And instead of a traditional cheesecake with strawberries, I like to make a tartwith a crust from finely ground hazelnuts—which offer a slight bitterness—and a filling of mascarpone cheese lightened with whipped cream and a little strawberry purée.
I like to use my extra strawberries in jams and purées. Save your older, tired berries for purées; as they dehydrate and wither, their flavor becomes more concentrated. I also like to make a quick “jam” by first macerating hulled berries with an equal amount of sugar (by weight), and then slowly cooking until syrupy; this is a nice treat on pancakes or vanilla ice cream. However you enjoy your strawberries, do it soon. Their season is fleeting, and you don’t want to miss it.