Here in the northeast it always seems like the summer season takes forever to build up. We start off strong with lettuces, asparagus, spinach, and kale, but after weeks and weeks of nothing but greens to eat locally the novelty starts to wane. Of course once the harvest season hits we’re buried in corn, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, squash, and all sorts of wonderful things to add interest to a meal, it just takes a while to get there. This year has been so chilly and rainy that early spring seems to be dragging on longer than usual, and the farmers I’ve spoken to have confirmed that we’re 1-2 weeks behind schedule due to the weather. Luckily there’s another spring crop that comes in to perk up the local food scene long before the flashy corn and tomatoes start rolling into the markets, and that’s the small but powerful strawberry.
Strawberries are in their peak right now in the Catskills and it’s worth seeking out ripe, locally grown berries to make something special with. The commercially grown strawberries are picked long before they ripen so that they can be shipped thousands of miles without spoiling. They’re also bred to be enormous, sometimes three times the size of the smaller strawberries I find locally. These factors don’t lead to tasty berries, and more often than not the commercial options have hardly any flavor and an unpleasant, tough texture. Fresh ripe strawberries should practically melt in your mouth and be sweet enough to enjoy without any other sweeteners. If the smell in the car isn’t enough to tempt you to snack on them while driving, they’re not good berries. In our parts we can get local strawberries twice a year. The first harvest is now until early July, and then the late season strawberries come into their own in August. I prefer these early spring berries, but they’re both good.
Recipes for sweet strawberry dishes abound and they’re all lovely. I prefer strawberry recipes that are simple and really showcase how wonderful the berry is. Strawberry shortcakes, where sweet biscuits and some whipped cream allow the berries to shine, or a sweet pastry shell filled with a little pastry cream and topped with fresh berries are what speak to me most. In addition to the sweet dishes strawberries have a place in the savory world as well. It’s worth becoming friendly with your local farmer so that you can ask for green unripe strawberries. These are wonderful pickled in a lightly sweetened vinegar brine and served with cheese and charcuterie. I’ve also made a nice strawberry ketchup by cooking ripe berries with vinegar, warm spices, a bit of Worcestershire sauce, and some tomato paste. My favorite savory use for strawberries is in gazpacho however.
Gazpacho is a chilled soup that developed in the Andalusia region of Spain. It’s origins began during Roman times, starting as a soup of stale bread, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic. Eventually when tomatoes were brought to the Iberian Peninsula they were incorporated into the existing dish, and that’s what stuck. Now there are quite a few varieties of gazpacho throughout Spain and Portugal. Some use more stale bread to create a thicker, smooth purred soup, and others use none at all and remain chunkier. At its soul gazpacho is a celebration of fresh flavor. It’s preparation and ingredients are simple, which allow the quality of the ingredients to shine through. Fresh tomato, cucumber, bell peppers, garlic, onions, and olive oil are the soup’s primary components, with vinegar, herbs, and spices coaxing the essence of those ingredients out.
For my strawberry version I don’t use any bread. I like to make the strawberries fairly smooth and let the other vegetables add texture and crunch. When preparing the strawberries some people “hull” them, using a small paring knife or special tool to cut the white part inside of the berry out. I never do this because I feel that it’s more work than it’s worth. I just cut straight across the top of the berry. This takes some of the good berry out along with the leaves, but I utilize those tops by throwing them in a mason jar and covering them with vinegar. I let them sit in the fridge covered in vinegar for a couple of week before straining them. The strawberry vinegar can be used to dress salads and make mignonette for seafood, or it can be sweetened with an equal quantity of sugar or honey and mixed with seltzer to make a strawberry shrub, a refreshing drink on a hot day. Gazpacho is a wonderful dish to make if you’re having company over because it can be prepared ahead of time and simple dished out into bowls to serve. It’s nice as a light lunch on a hot day, or as the start to a larger meal. One of the best parts of gazpacho are the fresh garnishes you can add on top. Traditional garnishes include boiled egg, Iberian ham, and fresh herbs. For my strawberry gazpacho I make a simple goat cheese mousse to add some richness to the dish, then garnish with more fresh vegetables, herbs, cracked black pepper, and olive oil.