It’s berry season once again, when those luscious jewel-toned gems abound in the gardens and adorn cheesecakes. Ruby red raspberries and sapphire-hued blueberries are also colorful confetti for garnishing summer salads, as well as nutrient-packed additions to your morning cereal. Blackberries are also bursting with juicy flavor, offering a nice alternative topping for panna cotta. In a couple of months, I will delight in bringing forth some tasty ideas to highlight berries in general. However, in light of numerous signs cropping up outside of every farm beckoning all to pick strawberries to their craving’s content, this time let us focus on this ever most popular berry of them all.
Strawberries are actually members of the rose family, and have grown wild throughout North and South America as well as Europe. It was not cultivated until the thirteenth century. From there, the strawberry we know and love commonly today did not evolve until centuries of cross breeding. The result originated in the Brittany region of France during the 1750s from a combination of the wild Virginia strawberry and a Chilean specimen. This hardy, juicy, red, cone-shaped berry offers us a flavor that is so coveted that it is now infused into everything, from ice cream to beverages to cereals.
While strawberries are available in supermarkets all year round, the peak time for picking strawberries here in the northeast is from April through June. Smaller berries are more flavorful, larger ones tend to taste watered down. Opt for bright, crimson-hued berries with their leafy green caps still attached; select those that are firm and plump, leave the mushy or shriveled ones behind. Once purchased, plan to consume these late spring delicacies within two days. Many farm stands that offer pick your own strawberries also vend jars of strawberry jam and preserves, as well as freshly baked strawberry rhubarb pies.
If you have a green thumb, you may want to consider adding strawberry plants to your garden plot, as they are easy to grow and hardy enough to endure most conditions worldwide. Long Island is a perfect locale, as they do prefer sandy soil. Keep plants well watered and protect developing fruit from birds and other hungry critters. Strawberries can also be planted in pots, either hanging baskets or the aptly named strawberry jar pot.
Strawberries are often added to dairy products, such as ice cream, yogurt and milkshakes. There is something so sweetly delicious about strawberry-flavored consumables. One of my favorites is the Starbuck’s strawberry cream Frappuccino, sort of the grownup’s variation of the strawberry milkshake or the Quik strawberry milk! Strawberries can also be made into preserves, jams and ice cream topping sauces. When dried, they can be added to baked goods and cereals. In their simplest, whole form, strawberries can be decadent when dipped in chocolate, lightly sprinkled with turbinado sugar or drizzled with mascarpone whipped cream. Sliced or whole, they’re stunning confetti when dropped over cheesecakes or cereal.
Here is a recipe for a dessert that is a welcome happy ending to the meal, in that it is simple to prepare and doesn’t require firing up the oven. This is panna cotta, which is an Italian custard, in this case vanilla flavored, that is topped with a strawberry coulis and sliced strawberries.
Almond Panna Cotta with Strawberries
Non-stick cooking spray
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 packet (4 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin powder (such as Knox)
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups heavy cream
½ teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
¼ cup sliced almonds
2 cups strawberries, hulled
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
6 strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced lengthwise
Lightly spray the bottoms and sides of four ¾ cup-sized custard cups with the non-stick cooking spray and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, pour 1 cup of the milk and then sprinkle the gelatin powder over the milk. Allow to sit for 3-5 minutes, the gelatin should swell. Place the saucepan over medium heat, add the remaining milk and sugar, and stir constantly until the sugar and gelatin have dissolved. As soon as this has occurred, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the heavy cream, vanilla and almond extracts until well blended. Carefully pour the mixture into the four prepared cups, dividing evenly (I like to pour the mixture into a large glass measuring cup first, the spout allows for easier pouring into the small custard cups, but work quickly!). Cover each cup with clinging plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
In a small food processor, process the 2 cups of strawberries and the confectioners’ sugar until all of the strawberries have been pureed. Place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl. Transfer the mixture to the sieve and press all of the liquid through the sieve into the bowl. Discard the solids left in the sieve. Stir the lemon juice into the liquid. Stir in the strawberry slices. Set aside.
In a nonstick frying pan over medium heat lightly toast the sliced almonds until their sliced surfaces start turning a golden brown. Remove the toasted almonds from the pan and set aside.
At serving time, fill a shallow bowl with hot water. Carefully run a very sharp knife around the inner sides of each custard cup. Dip the bottom of the first cup into the hot water for about five seconds. Invert the cup over a dessert plate, unmolding the custard. Repeat with the remaining three cups. Once all custards have been plated, spoon the coulis and sliced strawberry mixture over each, add a final sprinkle of toasted almonds and serve at once. Serves four.
· I have never had a problem unmolding the custards, but if you feel daunted by the task, you can instead divide the custard mixture into four deeper individual glass dessert dishes before refrigerating, and then simply spoon the topping over each right into the same dish. It won’t look as elegant, but it will certainly taste the same.
· Chocolate lovers can add another facet to this recipe by melting some top quality chocolate and then artistically drizzling that over the above finished product, extending those slashes of chocolate onto the surrounding plate itself, just before serving.
· Throughout the summer you can enjoy this dessert by highlighting other berries, simply substitute the strawberries in the coulis for blackberries, raspberries or blueberries. Instead of sliced strawberries, just toss in a quarter cup of the same whole berry to match the coulis flavor.
· Those with nut allergies, simply omit the nuts and almond extract and use one full teaspoon of vanilla extract for a vanilla panna cotta that will be just as sublime, creamy and delicious.