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IN THE KITCHEN : Soup of the Season

May 18, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

I tasted the first strawberry of the year last week. Technically, of course, the season has been going since early March. But until then, I hadn't found a strawberry worthy of the name. The ones I'd tasted had been pallid, watery, beige. I still bought them, hoping for the best, but I wasn't happy about it.

Then, at the Harry's Berries stand at the Santa Monica farmers market, the sun broke through. They had both Chandlers and Seascapes and were offering samples of each. I bit. The Seascape was the best berry I'd had all year--nicely berry-ish and almost lemony in its acidity. Then I tried the Chandler. Maybe the berry drought had affected my judgment, but it was a monster--deep, dark flavors and a spicy complexity . . . a majestic Cote de Nuits to the Seascape's graceful Cote de Beaune.

What came instantly to mind was a dessert I'd tried years ago at a wine-tasting dinner at Michel Richard's Citrus restaurant. Normally at meals like that, desserts are the last thing anyone pays any attention to. They're just too hard to match with wine (such is the narrow focus of meals like that ).

This time, though, the dessert was in the wine, quite literally: a bowl of berries floating in wine. He called it strawberry soup and it was terrific--dark, fragrant and spicy . . . at once the best dessert wine and the best strawberries you've ever tasted.

I asked him how he made it. He said it was just strawberries and wine. I knew better. There had to be more to it than that. Something that tasted that good had to have some kind of secret. I kept asking; he kept giving me the same answer.

I tried to make the dessert myself a couple of times, simmering the wine with different ingredients to try and replicate the spiciness. None of mine had that perfect blend of freshness and complexity of the original. I asked again and he told me the same. Strawberries and wine . . . no cooking. I decided if he was going to be that way about it, I'd just forget the whole thing. And I did. Until I tasted this summer's strawberries.

I decided to try it one more time--and to do it his way. Out of the wine rack at home, I pulled a couple of bottles of last summer's picnic wine--Les Jamelles Cinsault, a nice, fruity, cleanly acidic rose that retails for around $6 a bottle (or less, if you can find it on sale).

I used this wine because it fit the flavors I was looking for . . . it's crisp, it's slightly sweet, it's spicy . . . but mainly because it was cheap and I knew that it wasn't going to last much longer. Roses tend to the adolescent in their charms.

It would be interesting to try different wines with this. I think the wine would almost have to be red--white wines tend to be grapy, red wines more berry-ish--and I don't think the heavier reds would do well, but they might. My preferences for this dish lean toward fresh, fruity wines--light Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, new-style Chianti, almost certainly Beaujolais (could this be the way to get rid of all of that Beaujolais Nouveau you bought back in November?).

To the wine, I added just enough sugar to take away the alcoholic bite, and a little vanilla, just to round out the flavors. I cleaned the strawberries, cut them into consistent sizes and tossed them into the wine. I refrigerated this for a couple of hours, then tasted it. There it was: the dessert I remembered.

Just out of curiosity, I looked in Richard's cookbook "Home Cooking With a French Accent," to see if he'd mentioned it. To my surprise, I found that not only was it included, but that his recipe is almost exactly the same as mine. There's one main difference: In the book Richard adds a twist--beating melted chocolate into the wine.

I don't remember chocolate in the soup I tasted; furthermore, I have never been much of a fan of chocolate-covered strawberries. But if you like that kind of thing, feel free to try it yourself.

Instead, I served the strawberries with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chewy almond cookies. The cookies are a standard in my dessert collection. I adapted the recipe from the Sicilian cookie bocconotti di mandorla from Mary Taylor Simetti's "Pomp and Sustenance."

As it is, this is a grand dessert from a grand chef, fit for the best berries of the year.

STRAWBERRY SOUP AND COOKIES STRAWBERRY SOUP

Be aware that this dessert does include uncooked alcohol, though my 14-year-old daughter loved it and did not act any more unusual than normal afterward. Also, if there are leftovers (maybe make a double recipe, so there will be?), you can add the extra juice from the berries that you sugar and save for cereal.

1 bottle light red or rose wine

1 cup sugar

1 (3-inch) piece vanilla bean

2 pints strawberries, washed and hulled

Vanilla ice cream

6 almond cookies

Combine wine and sugar in large non-reactive metal bowl and whisk well to dissolve. Split vanilla bean in half and scrape seeds into wine mixture. Add bean.

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