Now, right now, strawberries are their strawberriest.
Ripe, luscious and dripping with juice, strawberries are nature's way of welcoming us back to another bountiful season of planting and harvesting. They are like a little gift -- an amuse bouche, if you will -- to thank us for our patience during a long and barren winter.
And as is so often the case at many fine restaurants, the amuse bouche turns out to be the best part of the meal.
Inspired by the little red nuggets of culinary gold, I set out to make six recipes in which strawberries were the star. They include an hors d'oeuvre and a salad dressing, a baked good and two drinks (one boozy, one not) and a dessert.
Ordinarily, I would save the dessert for last, but I want to tell you about it first because I am so excited about it. It is a restaurant-quality dish (not surprisingly, it was created by a restaurant chef) and it will leave you the toast of your family, friends and guests. It's that good.
It's also a bit of work, to be honest. But each part of the dish is easy to make, and you can do most of it the day before. And then, when you are ready to serve it, all you have left is to whip up a simple sauce. And then flambée it.
Strawberry Flambée Over Lemon Ricotta-Filled Crêpes is the kind of dessert that will give you a lifelong reputation as an exceptional cook. And all you have to do is master three simple parts.
First, you make the crepes, which are just a thin batter (flour, milk, eggs, melted butter) cooked briefly on a hot pan. Next, you stir together a filling for the crepes (ricotta cheese, sugar, vanilla and the zest of a lemon and an orange).
Finally, you make a sauce by heating together strawberries, sugar, orange juice, butter and Grand Marnier. When the alcohol is hot, light a match to it and watch the flames dance in delight. It should be impressive, but in the version I made the flames were a little hard to see.
It doesn't matter. The taste was amazing.
If you prefer your strawberry dishes to be fast and easy, I recommend using the fruit to make drinks. Hardly anything on earth is more refreshing.
Strawberry agua fresca is just a sweetened strawberry-flavored water, and it is delightful. It doesn't take long to make, but you do have to let it sit for a few hours. If you know it is going to be hot later in the day, or the next day, I can't think of anything more cooling.
It's the sort of drink that will make you want to mow the grass in the hot sun just so you can come inside and drink a tall glass of it.
If an adult beverage is more your style, nothing is more summery than a frozen strawberry daiquiri.
You just need rum, of course, and strawberries, plus an extra-sweet simple syrup (it takes perhaps two minutes to make) and a significant splash of lime juice to bring just the right slap of tart citrus to the sweet drink.
Add a handful of ice cubes, throw it all in the blender and you will have a lightly boozy slushie to remember.
I have a homemade salad dressing that I adore, but it would be a waste of the season in the spring and early summer not to make a dressing with strawberries.
The one I made was bright and full of the flavor of strawberries. Along with the berries and olive oil -- and salt and pepper, of course -- it only requires the sweet-tart combination of honey and apple cider vinegar.
The dressing tastes fresh and pure, and it is a superb way to use strawberries that are just a little overripe. Best of all, it comes together in a matter of minutes.
You probably already know how well strawberries pair with balsamic vinegar; sometimes I just mix the two and serve it over vanilla ice cream for an unexpectedly elegant dessert. But they also can be combined for a notable hors d'oeuvre, especially when paired with creamy goat cheese and deliciously crisp charred bread.
The secret to Strawberry Goat Cheese Bruschetta is that the balsamic vinegar is cooked until it is reduced by about half, which makes it extra good because it is syrupy and intense in flavor.
The reduced vinegar is mixed with diced strawberries and spooned on top of tangy goat cheese, which has been spread on thin slices of grilled or broiled French or Italian bread. I used a grill pan for mine; it's a skillet with raised lines that mimic the effect of a grill when cooking on a stove.
A light sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves is all the bruschetta needs to tie the flavors together.
My final dish is a baked good that is actually low in calories. Healthy Strawberry Oatmeal Bars are made with butter, brown sugar and whole wheat flour -- along with old-fashioned rolled oats and strawberries -- and yet they only have about 100 calories apiece.
Until you add a vanilla glaze. The glaze is optional, but you're going to want to add it. Yum.
Yield: 1 serving
1 1/2 ounces rum
1 ounce rich simple syrup, see note
3/4 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) lime juice, freshly squeezed
4-5 large strawberries
Note: To make rich simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until mixture turns clear. Cool to room temperature before using. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator.
Add the rum, simple syrup, lime juice, strawberries and five or six ice cubes to a blender and blend until smooth. Serve in a margarita glass or wine goblet.
Yield: 8 servings
1 cup strawberries, stemmed and chopped
2 tablespoons honey
5 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Combine the chopped strawberries, honey, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a food processor or blender and puree until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
STRAWBERRY AGUA FRESCA
Yield: 10 servings
4 cups strawberries, sliced
1 cup granulated sugar
8 cups cold water, divided
1 lime, cut into 10 rounds for garnish, optional
10 mint sprigs for garnish, optional
1. In a medium bowl, mix together sliced strawberries, sugar and 1 cup of the water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours.
2. Pour strawberry mixture into a blender. Blend on high until smooth. Pour this mixture through a strainer set over a large mixing bowl. Discard the pulp and seeds.
3. Add the remaining 7 cups cold water to the pureed strawberries, and mix well. Serve immediately over ice or refrigerate for several hours to chill. Garnish with lime rounds or mint leaves.
HEALTHY STRAWBERRY OATMEAL BARS
Yield: 16 servings
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups small-diced strawberries, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
For the optional vanilla glaze
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk (any kind)
1. Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with parchment paper so that the paper overhangs two sides like handles.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, ginger and salt. Pour in the melted butter and stir until it forms clumps and the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture, then press the rest into an even layer in the bottom of the prepared pan.
3. Scatter half of the strawberries over the crust. Sprinkle the cornstarch evenly over the top, then sprinkle on the lemon juice and 1/2 tablespoon of the granulated sugar. Scatter on the remaining berries, then the remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Sprinkle the reserved crumbs evenly over the top; you will have some fruit showing through.
4. Bake the bars for 35-40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbly and the crumb topping smells toasty and looks golden. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely.
5. When the bars are cool, prepare the glaze: In a medium bowl, briskly whisk together the powdered sugar, vanilla and milk until smooth. Add more milk if you want a thinner consistency. Using the parchment-paper handles, lift the bars from the pan. Drizzle with glaze, slice and serve.
STRAWBERRY GOAT CHEESE BRUSCHETTA
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
12 slices Italian or French bread
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound strawberries, washed and diced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus more for serving
1 cup goat cheese, room temperature
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat vinegar in a small skillet or saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer until reduced by about half, 8 to 10 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.
2. Prepare a grill, grill pan or broiler for high heat. Brush bread slices with oil and set aside. Combine strawberries and thyme in a small bowl and set aside.
3. Grill or broil bread until browned, about 3 minutes per side (about 1 minute per side if broiled).
4. Spread goat cheese on toasted bread. Add salt, pepper and reduced vinegar to the strawberry mixture. Spoon over the goat cheese-topped bruschetta. Garnish with additional thyme.
STRAWBERRY FLAMBÉE OVER LEMON RICOTTA-FILLED CREPES
Yield: 6 servings
For the crepes
1 1/2 cups milk
1 pinch salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Cooking spray (or additional butter)
For the filling
2 cups ricotta cheese
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
For the sauce
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 cups strawberries, hulled
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
2 tablespoons butter
Note: This recipe makes 18 crepes in a 6-inch skillet. Using a 10-inch skillet will result in about 6-7 crepes. The process is the same, but use about 1/3 cup of batter for each crepe, and fill each one with 1/3 cup of filling.
1. For the crepes: Put the milk and eggs into a blender and blend them thoroughly for just a few seconds. With the blender running at low speed, add the salt, melted butter and flour, in that order, through the feed hole in the blender lid. Blend until smooth. Refrigerate, covered, at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.
2. Heat a 6-inch nonstick skillet over low heat. Spray it with the cooking spray or grease with just a little butter. Pour a couple of tablespoons of batter in the center of the skillet and swirl the skillet around to make 1 thin, even layer of batter. The goal is not to brown the crepe but to cook it just enough to flip.
3. Once the crepe gets lacy around the edges and pulls away from the skillet, about 2 minutes, use a spatula to flip the crepe over. Cook the second side for only about 30 seconds, or not at all. Transfer the crepe to a large plate and repeat with the remaining batter. Once the crepes are cooked, they can be stacked and wrapped in plastic wrap for future use.
4. For the filling: Put the ricotta, citrus zests, vanilla and sugar into a medium mixing bowl and stir until smooth. The filling may be covered in plastic and refrigerated up to one day before serving.
5. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Lay a crepe out on a clean surface, cooked-side down. Put 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center and smooth it out with the back of a spoon. Fold the crepe in half and then half again into a quarter. Repeat the filling and folding process with the remaining crepes and filling. Set the folded crepes on a cookie sheet and keep warm in the oven.
6. For the sauce: Heat a large sauté pan over high heat until warm. Add the sugar and strawberries and cook until the sugar starts to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the orange juice and Grand Marnier. Using a long-handled lighter, very carefully ignite the alcohol in the pan (stand back, as the flames may shoot up). Once the flames die out, stir in the butter.
7. To serve, arrange three crepes on each of six dessert plates and spoon some strawberry sauce over the crepes.