Small, Good Things: Strawberry Fields Forever

By Joe Dizney

As surprising as it may seem, strawberries are late-bloomers to the early summer larder and marketplace.

Widely celebrated and represented in early culinary, medical and popular histories, the fruit commonly identified as a strawberry (botanically, it’s not a berry) was traditionally the wild woodland strawberry (fraises des bois), a delicacy as flavorful as it was rare. Impossible to cultivate and difficult to transport without turning to mush, they created a demand proportional to their scarcity, especially in France and England.

Concerted efforts to crossbreed New World plants with Old World varieties were to no avail until a brainy French researcher intuited that two American species were more likely compatible. This led to the modern garden strawberry of the 19th century.

Later “improvements” led to supermarket reds, but the 21st century appears to have us returning to a celebration of flavor. Based on a quart I bought from Liberty Orchards at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market, it looks to be a good season.

Quick Pickled Strawberries served atop a Buttermilk-Sorghum Panna Cotta (Photo by J. Dizney)

Not much is required from the cook to enjoy strawberries. A sprinkle of sugar and a dollop of cream is far more than enough and is surely the reason that “strawberry” as a dessert flavor sits in the universal triumvirate of popularity alongside chocolate and vanilla. This week’s recipes seek not to improve as much as accentuate that essence.

Admittedly, pickling seems counterintuitive, but acids (citrus, vinegar) emphasize the fruit’s character. A “quick pickle” brine of vinegar (or here, white wine vinegar), water, sugar and spices (vanilla, black pepper and star anise), boiled briefly and poured over the cleaned fruit produces exceptional results overnight.

The berries maintain a firmer texture than a typical sugar-macerated preparation. The taste is sweet-sour-bright with a rich smoothness from the vanilla and exotic top notes from the pepper and anise. The similarly spiced pickled strawberry jam (adapted from a recipe by Christina Tosi, chef/owner of the Milk Bar restaurants) is a natural progression.

These pickles have affinities for both savory and sweet: add them to salads (arugula, shaved fennel and pecorino; and be sure to use some of the pickling juice for your vinaigrette) or make a fruit salsa (with onions, oranges and mint) for grilled pork, chicken, shrimp or scallops. Or serve them with goat cheese and crackers. You could even make a crafty cocktail (with gin, soda and lime juice) or non-alcoholic shrub.

By all means, serve them over ice cream, yogurt, shortcake or panna cotta, maybe with a drizzle of good aged balsamic vinegar, a sprinkle of fresh mint or a splash of the puréed jam. Try this on Buttermilk-Sorghum Panna Cotta for a surprising Southern twist.

Spread the pickled strawberry jam on toast or use it as a filling for crepes, tarts or cookies. Mix it with a soft cheese (cream cheese, farmer cheese or mascarpone) to make a spread for bread or crackers. Mix it with an equal amount of butter for spreading on biscuits. You can even blend this strawberry butter with confectioners’ sugar and a pinch of salt to make a frosting for cakes or pastries.

The pickles aren’t for “putting up,” i.e., long-term storage, but the jam will prolong your enjoyment at least into the long winter months.

Quick Pickled Strawberries

Makes 1 quart

1 pound cleaned strawberries, halved if large
1½ cups good, varietal white wine vinegar (Chardonnay, Champagne, white balsamic or other)
⅔ cup water
¼ cup pure cane sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ vanilla bean pod, split
2 star anise pods
10 black peppercorns, bruised

Prepare a 1-quart canning/pickling jar and lid for use. Fill it loosely with the prepared strawberries. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the strawberries to almost fill the jar. Allow to cool to room temperature uncovered, then cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before using. Pickled strawberries are best used within two weeks of preparation.

Pickled Strawberry Jam

Adapted from Christina Tosi; makes about 3 cups

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon powdered pectin
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups strawberries, hulled, quartered if large
3 tablespoons varietal white wine vinegar (Chardonnay, Champagne, etc.)
¼ vanilla bean pod, split
2 star anise pods
10 black peppercorns, bruised

In a bowl, whisk the sugar, pectin and salt to combine. (If seedless jam is desired, purée the berries in a blender and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.)

In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar and spices, bring to a quick boil over medium heat and immediately remove from heat. Strain to remove the spices and return to the saucepan, adding the dry ingredients, then stirring until blended.

Add the strawberries (or purée) and stir until the mix is liquefied and comes to a boil. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, until thickened (about three minutes).

Pour the jam into a heat-proof bowl and let cool completely. Store covered in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen for up to six months.

Buttermilk-Sorghum Panna Cotta

Makes about 6 servings

2 tablespoons warm water
1 packet (about 2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin powder
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups buttermilk
¼ cup pure cane sugar
seeds scraped from the pod of ¼ vanilla bean
¼ cup sorghum syrup (available at Adam’s Fair Acre Farms; substitute honey)

Put 2 tablespoons of warm water in a large heatproof bowl and sprinkle gelatin powder as evenly as possible over the surface. Let rest for 10 minutes. Heat 1 to 2 inches of water in a saucepan to later fashion a double boiler from the bowl and saucepan.

Add the cream, buttermilk sugar and vanilla to the bowl; place over the simmering pot and whisk until smooth and just warmed through. Whisk in the sorghum syrup (or honey) and remove from heat.

Divide the mixture evenly between six custard cups or parfait glasses, wrapping each tightly with plastic wrap. (Don’t allow it to touch the surface of the panna cotta.) Refrigerate at least 12 hours or overnight to set.