Strawberries - Beyond Shortcake

The strawberry's popularity has certainly stood the test of time. It was somewhere around 1600 that William Butler said, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did."

William Butler didn't mention that strawberries are high in potassium and vitamin C, as well as low in calories, but I'm sure that was an oversight. What appealed to him is what has appealed to strawberry eaters since ancient times - the bright, fresh, sweet flavor that has made strawberries one of the most popular foods on earth.

They are also, alas, one of the most perishable. Look for berries that are red from stem to stern (pass over the ones that are green near the hull), and that smell like you want them to taste. You're unlikely to find good strawberries out of season, so get your fill now (strawberry season in most areas is mid-spring to mid-summer).

Ripe strawberries won't keep long. Keep them, with their hulls intact, loosely covered in the refrigerator, and try to use them within 24 hours. If they're big and hardy, they'll withstand washing, but if you're lucky enough to get the small, fragile kind, try to avoid running water over them.

Strawberries are traditional ingredients in custards, jellies and jams, frozen drinks, mousses, soufflés, gelatins, and sorbets, but there's no need to get complicated:

  • Layer sliced strawberries with ice cream in a parfait glass, and top with strawberry or chocolate sauce.
  • Make a simple sauce by pureeing a pint of strawberries with 3 tablespoons of sugar and a sprig of mint leaves (add water if it's too thick).
  • Dust off your fondue pot for chocolate fondue with strawberries for dipping.
  • Add chopped strawberries to batter for pancakes or waffles.
  • Soak 3 cups of sliced strawberries overnight with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2-4 tablespoons of something to give it oomph - try Kirsch, brandy, Cointreau, créme de menthe, red wine, Rose's lime juice, or balsamic vinegar. Serve with a little whipped cream or crème fraîche.
  • As a shortcake alternative, serve strawberries and cream over gingerbread.
  • Freeze a cup of strawberries, and make a smoothie with some vanilla yogurt, milk, and maple syrup.

Or, if you get the chance, eat them warm, right off the vine.

Strawberry Panna Cotta with Strawberry Compote

Prepare both the panna cotta and the compote a day ahead. Panna cotta needs at least eight hours to set up and the compote will need to cool to at least room temperature before serving.

For the panna cotta :

3 cups strawberries, sliced
1-3/4 cups buttermilk, well shaken
6 Tbsp sugar
2-1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk

For the strawberry compote:
 
2-1/2 cups whole strawberries, stems removed
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tsp fine granulated sugar

Panna cotta:

1. In a blender puree strawberries, buttermilk and sugar until very smooth. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl, using a wooden spoon to extract all the liquid. Discard the leftover solids.

2. In a small bowl sprinkle the gelatin over the whole milk and allow to soften for 1-2 minutes.

3. In a small saucepan bring the cream to a boil, remove from heat and add the milk and gelatin mixture, stirring until completely dissolved.

4. Whisk the strawberry puree into the cream mixture and pour into ramekins. Cover the molds and chill for at least 8 hours or until firm. To unmold the desserts, dip each mold in hot water for a couple of seconds, then invert onto a dessert plate. Remove the mold and let the panna cotta stand for about 10-15 minutes so it softens slightly.

Strawberry compote:

1. Halve the berries lengthwise.

2. In a small sauce pan over medium-high heat whisk together the orange juice and sugar until dissolved. Add the strawberries and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer until the liquid thickens, about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until ready to serve. If you prefer you can put the compote in the microwave for 30-40 seconds just before spooning over the panna cotta to take the chill off.

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