I recently had the opportunity to enjoy several quarts of strawberries grown in Gustavus. Smaller and paler in color than commercially available strawberries, these beauties were soft and juicy without being at all mushy. Their flavor was wonderfully sweet with just the right touch of acidity. If candy grew on vines in the wild, surely it would look and taste like a strawberry.
Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. His column appears every Wednesday.
Clearly, I am not alone in my love of the strawberry. Last year, close to 1.7 billion pounds of strawberries were harvested in the U.S., making the strawberry the most popular berry on the market, according to the California Strawberry Commission. In addition to their delicious flavor, strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, vitamin B5 and magnesium, acording to the Visual Food Encyclopedia.
Like the raspberry, the strawberry is a member of the rose family, and to a berry lover they certainly smell just as sweet. Wild strawberries come in literally hundreds of varieties and are native to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Today's commercially cultivated species are descendants of wild American varieties which were hybridized by French and British botanists in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While strawberries have traditionally been harvested in May and June in temperate areas around the country, they come to their prime in Southeast gardens in late July. The majority of strawberries sold in the U.S. today come from California. Some of the newer varieties have been bred to bear fruit in various seasons, which is why strawberries are now available almost year-round in supermarkets.
To my mind, it is impossible to separate the flavor of strawberries from the experience of summer. Traditional varieties of berries organically grown during the spring and summer months are definitely superior in flavor and texture to those you might find in the winter. And since strawberries go so well with their natural summer growing mates - rhubarb, nectarines, apricots, other berries and mint - it seems a shame not to enjoy them while the season lasts.
When buying strawberries, look for firm, bright red fruit and a sweet aroma. Try to avoid soft, bruised or moldy fruit. Make sure to separate any moldy berries from the batch as soon as you get home or the mold will quickly spread. Strawberries don't keep long, so keep them refrigerated and make sure to use them within two to three days - after much longer, they will be good only for purees and jams. To retain flavor, wash and then hull the berries as close to the time that you will be using them as possible.
If you are lucky enough to come upon fresh wild strawberries, or other particularly good ones (I recommend the organic brands available at Rainbow Foods throughout the summer), enjoying them on their own or with a bit of fresh whipped cream is an unsurpassable pleasure.
If, as is more likely, your berries could use a a flavor boost, try tossing them with a bit of sugar and liquid and letting them rest at room temperature for a couple of hours before eating. This process is called maceration and it both softens and intensifies the flavor of any fruit that is less than perfectly ripe. Some of my favorite liquids to use with strawberries include fresh lemon juice, rum, port wine and balsamic vinegar. About one tablespoon of liquid and one tablespoon of sugar per pint of berries should help to reveal the inherent fruitiness of your strawberries. The small amount of liquid that collects at the bottom of the bowl while the fruit macerates is also very nice poured over your berries and whatever else you are serving with them - vanilla ice cream or pound cake would be excellent choices.
Whether your strawberries are fresh or soft, sweet or bland, they will always work well in a versatile and refreshing chilled soup. Frozen berries are also an easy option here and, since they are picked and frozen at their peak, they are actually often tastier than berries that have been picked too early or shipped too far.
Passed in champagne flutes, this beautiful red soup makes a great starter for special occasions, but it can also be served as a light dessert with scoops of fruity sorbet or frozen yogurt. Feel free to substitute other berries or fruit for the strawberries, but make sure to use a good quality sparkling wine that you enjoy, as its flavor will be apparent in the finished soup.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
3 pints strawberries, hulled
1 bottle champagne or other sparkling wine, chilled
1. Put sugar and water in a small pot and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
2. Puree cooled sugar syrup and hulled berries in a blender or food processor. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and refrigerate until cold.
Note: Soup can be completed up to this point up to 24 hours ahead of time.
3. Just before serving add about three-quarters of the chilled champagne to the berry puree and stir to combine. Taste and add more champagne if desired (this is a matter of personal preference). Serve immediately.
Makes 4-8 servings.
Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. His column appears every Wednesday. Comments or questions about this column may be sent in care of reporter Julia O'Malley at email@example.com.