Two things to do with strawberries
I managed not to eat them all straight from the pasteboard box, and as promised, here are some nifty things to do with really good strawberries. You know the ones I mean: Red and tender all the way to the heart, so fragrant they smell up your whole refrigerator, and sweet as a May morning. If you can’t get fresh, local berries, my condolences. Don’t bother with these recipes, or (for the panna cotta) substitute good preserves. Anything but those hard, red-on-the-outside, white-on-the-inside excuses for strawberries most supermarkets stock. They’re marginally acceptable when piled on shortcake and smothered in whipped cream, but not for any recipe that’s meant to show off the delicate strawberry flavor and fragrance.
The first dish was yesterday’s lunch, inspired in part by a desire to finish off the wonderful spinach I’d bought the week before. The second is a happy coincidence: I’m providing food props for a local theater production, and among them is “creme caramel” – but I’ve been substituting panna cotta, because its gelatin-and-cream base is more refrigerator-stable than the egg custard of real creme caramel. I had a couple of extras, so …
Ripe strawberries, sliced
A few spears of fresh asparagus, the smaller the better
Good balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground pink peppercorns
Tear greens into bite-sized pieces and spread on a plate. Arrange a few spears of asparagus, lightly steamed or roasted, on the greens. Top with a few sliced strawberries (I got cute and made strawberry fans by slicing from the tip not quite to the stem and then fanning out the pieces). Drizzle with a balsamic vinegar – less is better than more, here. Sprinkle with ground pepper and a tiny bit of sea salt.
If you’re not the kind of person who keeps pink peppercorns on hand, fresh-ground black pepper is good, too, but the pink variety has a subtle, floral flavor that goes wonderfully with berries and other fruit.
My recipe for this luxurious Italian dessert is adapted from one by Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of the wonderful public radio cooking show, The Splendid Table. Hers makes enough for a big dinner party, so I’ve jiggered the proportions, and I’ve upped the gelatin-to-cream ratio just a bit to make them easier to unmold.
1 tsp unflavored gelatin (that’s about half an envelope)
2 Tbsp cold water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-dairy sour cream. Make sure to get the kind that lists “cultured cream” as its only ingredient. You don’t want agar or other thickeners in this. (Or ever, really).
Caramel sauce (make your own if you want, but I use Mrs. Richardson’s Butterscotch Caramel Sauce, which is to die for)
Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl. Let it stand for 5 minutes.
In a small saucepan combine the cream, sugar, salt and vanilla and warm over medium-high heat. Do not allow it to boil. Stir in the gelatin until thoroughly dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
Put the sour cream in a medium bowl. Gently whisk in the warm cream until smooth and thoroughly combined.
Rinse a half-dozen small ramekins, pyrex custard cups, or coffee cups with cold water. Place a spoonful of caramel sauce in the bottom of each, and then fill with the cream mixture. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (can be made a day ahead of time, and if covered with plastic wrap once it’s chilled, it holds up well for a couple of days in the fridge).
When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the panna cotta, place a dessert plate on top of the ramekin and invert. It should plop right out onto the plate; if not, carefully run the knife up the side and gently pry it loose. Make sure to get all the caramel sauce out of the ramekin and onto the custard (a spoon may be needed). Top with ripe strawberries. Makes six small desserts.
I’ve got house guests coming this evening, and plan to ply them with berries and panna cotta. I don’t think they’ll mind