By JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
My father loves dessert. My mother baked spice cakes, brownies, pies and cookies daily, so he’d have a homemade treat after dinner and in his brown bag lunch. His first words after surgery? Chocolate ice cream, please. All this means that for his birthday and Father’s Day, we pull out the sweet stops.
Fortunately for this cook, Father’s Day falls at the height of local strawberry season. True, California, the state that produces more strawberries than any other, boasts them nearly all year long. For the most part, we’re content with the large berries from California (and Florida) - especially when sugared and used to top pancakes and waffles or in crisps and cobblers.
In the Midwest, local strawberries hit their stride in June appearing at farmers markets like magical flavor variations of an otherwise ubiquitous berry. It’s imperative to act quickly - in my experience, they sell out quickly, so we gather our treasures early in the market day. If we’re lucky, we make it to a nearby you-pick berry farm to stock the freezer before the fields are picked clean.
Why incur the anxiety and expense of local berries? Pure and simple: flavor. Commercial strawberries are bred to taste and look alike from crop to crop. Local farmers grow different varieties - they tend to be smaller, more aromatic and juicy. We eat them raw, lightly sweetened, lightly cooked, tucked into muffin batter, frozen into sorbets and pureed into smoothies.
I also enjoy these aromatic red berries with savory seasonings such as sweet-tart balsamic vinegar and black pepper. These macerated strawberries make a terrific topping for avocado toast or stirred into warm brown rice with garbanzo beans and fresh chives.
The following strawberry sauce, infused with red wine, thyme and cardamom, tastes equally great on ice cream as it does grilled pork, duck or chicken. Make a double batch - it keeps a week or more in the refrigerator and can even be frozen.
For a new twist on a strawberry sundae, assemble the dessert on a plate instead of the traditional sundae bowl. Add broken meringue cookies and decorate the plate with confectioners’ sugar and cocoa to be oh-so-chef-y.
Strawberries, sweet and savory. Get ’em while you can. Your father will thank you.
BALSAMIC AND BLACK PEPPER STRAWBERRIES
Prep: 20 minutes
Chill: several hours
Makes: 4 cups
Serve these berries on top of fresh spinach salad with a balsamic vinaigrette and crumbled goat cheese. Or, spoon them onto plain Greek yogurt with some chocolate granola.
2 quarts small strawberries, hulled, thinly sliced, about 6 cups
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
A couple of grinds of black pepper
Put all ingredients into a bowl. Stir well. Refrigerate for several hours, stirring a few times. The mixture will keep for several days in the refrigerator.
Nutrition information per 1/2 cup serving: 54 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 1 g protein, 2 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Honey and thyme strawberry sauce
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: about 3 cups
2 quarts (2 pounds) halved small strawberries (quartered if large), about 6 cups
2 thin strips orange peel (orange only, no white pith)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup each: dry red wine, honey
11/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 inch piece peeled fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1. Put strawberries, orange peel, sugar, wine, honey, lemon juice and salt into a large 4-quart saucepan. (Use a deep pot to prevent boil-overs.) Put cardamom, bay leaves, coriander seeds, ginger and thyme into a tea ball infuser (or wrap in a double thickness of cheesecloth and tie closed). Add to the pan tucking it under the strawberries.
2. Heat to a simmer over medium heat, being sure to submerge the tea ball. Let simmer on medium-low, stirring often, until strawberries soften and juices thicken slightly, about 25 minutes.
3. Cool completely. Remove the orange peel and the tea ball. Refrigerate the sauce in a tightly covered container overnight or up to 2 weeks.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 20 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 0 g protein, 6 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
STRAWBERRY RICOTTA TOAST
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes: 6 appetizer servings
Don’t walk away while the bread is in the broiler - it burns easily.
1/2 loaf (about 1/2 pound) multigrain sourdough bread, sliced 3/4-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
1 carton (15 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese
2 to 3 teaspoons very thinly sliced fresh mint leaves
Freshly ground grains of paradise or black pepper
1 cup honey and thyme strawberry sauce, see recipe
1. Heat broiler. Cut each bread slice on an angle into thirds making triangle-shaped pieces. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Brush both sides of each bread piece with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Broil, 4 inches from the heat source, until bread is nicely toasted with crusty edges, about 2 minutes. Turn each bread piece, and return to the broiler to toast the other side, about 2 more minutes.
3. Put the ricotta into a shallow bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the top. Scatter mint over the oil, and sprinkle with grains of paradise or pepper. Put strawberry sauce into another bowl. Set the toasts around the bowls of ricotta and strawberry sauce. Have guests spread some of the ricotta onto the warm toast and top with the strawberries.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 295 calories, 13 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 13 g sugar, 12 g protein, 449 mg sodium, g fiber
Prep: 15 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
I like Trader Joe’s vanilla meringue cookies here. Other options include shortbread, madeleines or your favorite crisp cookie.
4 vanilla meringue cookies
1/2 cup honey and thyme strawberry sauce, see recipe
1/2 cup balsamic and black pepper strawberries, see recipe
4 small scoops vanilla ice cream
Lightly sweetened whipped cream
Unsweetened cocoa, optional
1. Put 2 meringue cookies onto each serving plate. Use the tip of a knife to break the meringues into quarters.
2. Spoon half of the sauce and strawberries around the meringues on each plate. Top each plate with 2 small scoops of ice cream. Top with a dollop of whipped cream. Sprinkle the plate with confectioners’ sugar and cocoa. Add a mint sprig to each and serve right away.
Nutrition information per serving: 459 calories, 20 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 65 g carbohydrates, 59 g sugar, 7 g protein, 130 mg sodium, 3 g fiber