Thanks to May's cool weather, local strawberries arrived a little late this year. No matter -- they were worth the wait. But you better get them while you can. Recent heavy rains have damaged some of Long Island's plants, so the crop, while delicious, will be small.
Unlike the trucked-in berries available at supermarkets, which are bred first and foremost to survive the long trip from Florida, California or Mexico, local strawberries are bred for sweetness and flavor. But unlike supermarket berries, which are picked well before they ripen so they don't go bad in transit, local berries are picked when they're ready to eat.
If flavor and ripeness aren't enough, consider this: Commercially grown strawberries appear perennially on environmentalists' lists of foods most heavily contaminated with pesticides. In contrast, local berries are grown by small farmers, many of whom raise their crops organically.
The best local berries are small, an indication they haven't been pumped up by fertilizers. They also are fragrant and ruby red all the way through, because they've been picked when ripe. Don't wash them until you are ready to eat them. These berries are like little sponges, and will soak up water and then begin to rot soon thereafter.
I keep my berries on the countertop and eat them within a day or two. They can be refrigerated to keep longer but will lose some of their delightful juiciness when chilled. If you can't eat your berries immediately, it's better to freeze them for later use. Just wash and drain them, cut off the stems and place them in a zipper-lock bag in the coldest part of your freezer. If you think ahead, you'll be able to enjoy some of the local crop in a strawberry pie in the middle of winter.
Right now, however, pie is the furthest thing from my mind. When strawberries are this flavorful and juicy, I don't bother cooking them. I serve them on top of ice cream or ricotta cheese, with panna cotta, and in a sweet and savory salsa that's great with grilled fish. Here are some of the simple ways I plan to eat them over the next week or two.
BANANA SPLIT WITH DULCE DE LECHE AND STRAWBERRIES
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 banana, split lengthwise
1 1/2 cups coconut or vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup stemmed and sliced strawberries, plus 3 small strawberries, stemmed
1/4 cup dulce de leche or other caramel sauce
2 tablespoons sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
1. Whip cream, sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer until cream holds soft peaks.
2. Place banana slices in a long, narrow, shallow dish. Arrange 3 scoops of ice cream on top of banana. Spoon sliced strawberries over ice cream and drizzle with about half of the dulce de leche sauce. Top with whipped cream, drizzle with more dulce de leche and sprinkle with coconut. Top each mound of ice cream and whipped cream with a small strawberry. Serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.
This is good on grilled fish, with tortilla chips or spooned over slices of fresh mozzarella.
2 cups stemmed and diced strawberries
1 avocado, pitted, peeled and diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
Juice from 1 lime
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine strawberries, avocado, jalapeño, lime juice, cilantro, sugar and salt in a bowl and gently toss. Serve immediately with grilled fish or tortilla chips. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
GINGER PANNA COTTA WITH STRAWBERRIES AND MINT
1/2 cup milk
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 (3-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup mint leaves
1 cup strawberries
1. Pour milk into a small bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Let stand until gelatin dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes.
2. Combine cream, ½ cup sugar and ginger in a small, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, add gelatin mixture and whisk constantly for 1 minute to dissolve gelatin. Let stand 15 minutes to steep. Stir in vanilla and strain into four ramekins or custard cups. Refrigerate until firm, at least 6 hours or overnight.
3. Bring water and remaining ¼ cup sugar to boil in a small saucepan. Stir in mint leaves and let stand 10 minutes to steep.
4. Place strawberries in a bowl and pour mint syrup through a strainer and into bowl, pressing down on leaves with a spoon. Let stand 10 minutes to cool to room temperature.
5. Fill a medium-size bowl with very hot tap water. One at a time, run a paring knife around each panna cotta, then dip bottom half of ramekin in water for 30 seconds. Place a small plate on top of mold, invert, tap bottom of mold and lift off plate. Arrange berries around each panna cotta and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
STRAWBERRY, MASCARPONE AND AMARETTI PARFAITS
1 cup mascarpone
1 tablespoon Amaretto or other almond liqueur
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
6 amaretti cookies, crumbled
1 cup stemmed and sliced strawberries
1. Combine mascarpone, Amaretto, cream and 2 tablespoons sugar in a bowl. Beat with a mixer until smooth.
2. Divide crumbled cookies among 4 parfait glasses. Spoon strawberries over cookies, then top with mascarpone mixture. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours before serving. Makes 4 servings.
STRAWBERRIES WITH SWEETENED RICOTTA AND BALSAMIC-BLACK PEPPER SYRUP
Use leftover syrup on top of ice cream or frozen yogurt.
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
11/2 cups stemmed and sliced strawberries
2 cups full-fat ricotta cheese
1. Combine vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar and peppercorns in a small saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer, adjusting heat as necessary, until reduced by half. Strain into a bowl or small measuring cup and cool to room temperature.
2. Combine ricotta and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a medium bowl. Divide among 4 dessert bowls. Spoon strawberries over ricotta, drizzle with syrup and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.