I don't care what the calendar says, I only know that it is officially summer when the strawberries at my local market are red and ripe.
Crudely lettered signs appear at regular intervals along highways on Long Island bearing the legend: "U-Pick Your Own." I recall when the prices for such a back-breaking chore were literally pennies a pint. The tariff is usually more than $1 for the same amount these days.
A month ago, driving through Oxnard, Calif., strawberry capital of the nation, I saw the same signs at the same prices, so I know for sure there is no way to win the berry price wars.
No matter where you make your home, look for firm, dry shapely berries in the market. A deep, crimson gloss is a good sign of freshness, too. Consumers would be wise to note that strawberries (like pineapple and melon) do not ripen after they are harvested off the vine. What you see at the checkout counter is what you get on the dessert plate.
Some Storage Tips
As a voracious berry eater, ripe fruit never remains for long in my kitchen. But a firm crop of strawberries can usually be put on hold for up to a week in a clean, uncluttered vegetable crisper. Never store berries next to cheese, yogurt or any other bacteria-formed food in the refrigerator. I would advise to not wash them before serving. A damp paper towel gently rubbed over the fruit's surface will usually remove any grime, whereas a cold bath will severely increase the fragile fruit's deterioration process.
Cream is probably the simplest topping for perfect berries, but Richard Olney suggests orange juice or orange liqueur (in moderation) as an admirable, less caloric stand-in. Strawberries are one of my favorite bases for mousses and souffles.
"A rosy blur of delight" is a phrase the late cookbook author and culinary savant Michael Field dubbed the following luscious berry dessert. I invented it almost 20 years ago when I started the Store in Amagansett, N.Y., and two decades later it's still a taste treat I cannot resist.
IN THE PINK MOUSSE
1 pint strawberries, hulled
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons water
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
3/4 cup whipping cream or half and half
1 tablespoon kirsch liqueur
Fresh small strawberries for garnish
Place 1 pint strawberries with orange juice in container of blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Press berries through sieve into medium bowl.
Soften gelatin in water. Beat egg yolks with sugar until light and fluffy. Add lemon peel and strawberry puree. Transfer to top of double boiler and stir in softened gelatin. Cook, stirring often, over hot water until gelatin is dissolved and mixture is thick enough to coat spoon. Remove from heat. Stir over ice until cool.
Beat cream with liqueur until thick. Fold into strawberry base. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into mixture. Pour into serving bowl. Chill at least 6 hours before serving. Decorate with fresh strawberries. Makes 6 servings.
I am not a particular fan of chocolate-covered fruit in general but I make an exception to the rule once a year in June when berries are at their ripest and the coat they don is made of pale white chocolate, or milk chocolate, if desired.
1 pint strawberries with stems
2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice
4 ounces white chocolate, broken into pieces
Clean strawberries and hull with damp cloth. Do not wash. Dip piece of paper towel into orange liqueur or orange juice and coat berries lightly. Allow to dry.
Melt chocolate in top of double boiler over hot water until temperature registers 84 degrees on candy thermometer or until mixture is easily stirred with spoon. Remove from heat but do not cool.
Place sheet of wax paper on large dinner plate. With rubber spatula, scoop some melted chocolate. Take 1 strawberry in hand and coat gently with chocolate, leaving upper third and stem uncoated. Place coated strawberry on wax paper. Continue until all strawberries are coated, making sure berries do not touch.
Place plate with berries in refrigerator 1 hour until set. Serve with small bowl of sweetened whipped cream for dipping, if desired, or serve with coffee. Makes about 16 strawberries.