After some chilly weather in May and early June, local strawberries are finally ripe for picking. They may have arrived a little bit late this year, but they are as sweet and juicy as ever.
The first fruit of summer (let's be honest, nobody counts rhubarb) was gathered by Native Americans in this area long before it was cultivated by Long Island farmers. Among local tribes, June was known as Strawberry Moon, and wild strawberries were celebrated with strawberry tea and strawberry and cornmeal cakes. Those berries were small and sweet -- nothing like the giant, generally tasteless varieties imported from California and Florida but probably similar to the fragrant fruit grown today by local farmers.
Since pre-Colonial times, strawberry farming has become a big business. In 2014, California produced more than 2.3 billion pounds. But bigger -- in business and in berries -- isn't always better. Large berries from commercial farms are bred to survive a long journey. They contain a lot of water, which keeps them plump but dilutes their flavor. This fruit is picked before it's ripened, so it won't be rotten when it arrives hundreds or thousands of miles later at its destination. It never gets as sweet as it might if allowed to ripen on the vine.
In contrast, smaller berry varieties grown by small Long Island producers have more flavor and fragrance. They've been allowed to mature fully before harvest, so they're intensely sweet. The only downside to local strawberries is their perishability. Once picked, they begin to soften and shrivel, even when refrigerated, so it is best to use them within a day or so.
When shopping at the farmers market, look for just-picked fruit, berries that are sweet-smelling, brightly colored, firm, and with intact bright green stems. Wrinkled or dull fruit is past its prime. Don't wash your berries until you are ready to use them. If you are not going to use them that day, refrigerate them in a single layer in an airtight container for a day or two to prevent bruising.
Need ideas for the berries you picked up this morning? Tired of strawberry shortcake, strawberries and balsamic vinegar and strawberry tart? How about using some sliced strawberries as a topping for warm cream cheese crepes?
I've tried many times to make traditional crepes, and am always disappointed by their uneven shape, rubbery texture and tendency to tear. Instead of practicing until I am actually good at making them, I've turned to a store-bought substitute that is foolproof and delicious.
Egg roll wrappers, available in the produce section near the tofu, can be filled with anything you like, to make either sweet or savory crepes. Last week, I spread some softened cream cheese and orange marmalade in a thin line across the bottoms of the wrappers, rolled them up and cooked them in butter until they were deliciously crisp. Then I threw sliced strawberries into the empty pan and warmed them with a little Grand Marnier before using them as a topping. I challenge you to make a quicker and easier strawberry dessert that looks so fancy and tastes so good.
Most strawberry recipes will instruct you to hull the berries before using them, removing their stems and white cores with a sharp paring knife. This may be necessary with large, imported berries, but with local berries, which are sweet and ripe throughout, simply slicing off the stem and a bit of berry is easier and less wasteful than removing the core.
Cream Cheese "Crepes" with Warm Strawberries
If you'd like, substitute orange juice for the liqueur.
8 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup orange marmalade
8 egg roll wrappers
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pint fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced
1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1. Spread 2 tablespoons cream cheese and then 1 tablespoon marmalade in a 1-inch-thick line across the bottom quarter of each egg roll wrapper. Roll up tightly.
2. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Carefully add the crepes, seam sides down, and sprinkle with sugar. Cook until golden brown on bottoms, 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully turn with a spatula and cook until golden on both sides, another minute.
3. Transfer crepes to four serving plates, 2 crepes on each plate.
4. Add the strawberries and liqueur to the pan, turn the heat to medium-high, and cook just until the alcohol has cooked off, about 1 minute. Spoon berries over each portion and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.