SPRING FRUIT

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Strawberries are among spring's simplest pleasures, if you

remember a few basic rules.

Choose the best berries by aroma, not color or size. The flavor of

strawberries is complex; only by sniffing around will you get the best. Once

you've found the ones that smell the sweetest, check the underside of the box

to make sure there's no spoilage.

Store strawberries at room temperature for as long as possible. The

chemical compounds that make up much of the berries' flavor are cold-sensitive,

and chilling will diminish the taste.

Wash strawberries in plenty of cold running water, but do it before

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removing the green caps. This helps prevent the berries from soaking up

moisture and diluting the flavor.

Remember that sugar draws moisture out of berries. In some cases, this is

bad - if you want the berries to remain firm, sugar them just before serving or

they'll go limp. In other cases it is a big help - sugar strawberries for ice

cream well in advance of freezing, and you won't end up with ice cubes in your

ice cream.

The red color of strawberries comes from the pigment anthocyanin, which is

not heat stable. If you cook strawberries alone, that lovely crimson color will

turn to a bruised purple. But acidity stabilizes the pigment, so add some

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lemon or orange juice (or bake the berries with rhubarb), and the color will

remain red.

When you've got great berries, the simplest treatments are always the best.

I can't imagine a more perfect spring dessert than lightly sugared

strawberries served atop vanilla ice cream. In fact, if the berries are really

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grand, serve them by themselves. This is especially nice at the end of a long

dinner party when you still have red wine in your glass for dipping.

If you want to get a little more elegant, serve the strawberries in a

lightly flavored syrup. Basil is brilliant. Use just enough to bring out the

berries' herbal complexity. Adding orange slices is not only pretty but also

adds another layer of flavor.

If strawberries have a drawback - and I'm not saying that they do - it's

texture. You can take care of that by mounding them in a pastry crust (strained

strawberry jelly will keep things together). Or you can bake them in a crisp

with some of that rhubarb - for color and flavor.

Another way to add a little crunch to those succulent berries is with

meringues. One of the classic French strawberry desserts is the "vacherin" - a

meringue base spread with whipped cream and topped with strawberries. This

quick version captures most of the original's charm without forcing you to

beat, pipe out and bake all those egg whites. Commercial meringues vary in

sweetness, so taste before adding them to the recipe; you might adjust the

amount of sugar added to the whipped cream or to the berries.

Note: Sweet, crimson Long Island strawberries begin ripening in a couple of

months. Look for a list of U-pick farms in early June.

STRAWBERRY

VACHERIN

1 1/2 pounds (about 1 1/2 pints) strawberries

1/4 cup sugar, divided

1 tablespoon orange liqueur

2 cups whipping cream

2 ounces meringues (about 6, 2-inch, round meringues)

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

1. Wash the strawberries, remove their caps and slice them. In a bowl,

gently stir together the strawberries, 2 tablespoons sugar and the orange

liqueur. Set aside.

2. Beat whipping cream with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until soft

peaks form. Cut each meringue in half crosswise and then vertically.

3. Stir the strawberries once more and add them to the whipped cream. Add

the meringues and gently fold together just until combined.

4. Divide the mixture among 8 ( 1/2-cup) serving dishes. Sprinkle each

serving with 1 tablespoon toasted almonds and refrigerate at least 1 hour

before serving. Makes 8 servings.

STRAWBERRIES AND ORANGES IN BASIL SYRUP

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup thinly sliced basil

2 pounds (about 2 1/2 pints) strawberries

4 oranges

1. Prepare the syrup by bringing the water and sugar to a boil and then

cooking just until clear, 2 to 3 minutes. Let the syrup cool very briefly and

add the sliced basil. Set aside to steep and cool while you prepare the fruit.

2. Wash strawberries, remove their caps and cut them in quarters if

normal-sized, or sixths if very large. Cut away the orange peel, being careful

to remove all of the bitter white pith. Working over a mixing bowl to catch any

juice, cut oranges in sections, leaving behind membrane that separates

sections.

3. Add the strawberries to the orange sections and juice and pour the syrup

over. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving. Makes 8 servings.

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