Now is the best time of the year. It’s strawberry time.
So juicy. So sweet. So delicious. So soft-tender on your tongue.
No sensation in the world can compare to eating a plump, sun-warmed strawberry straight off the vine. It is all that is good about the world, concentrated into one perfect, succulent bite.
Strawberries are the fifth most popular fruit in the United States. In 2012, America grew more than 3 billion pounds of the berries. In fact, if you took all the strawberries grown in California alone and laid them end to end, they would circle the globe 15 times.
That’s a lot of berries.
But why not? Almost everybody loves strawberries. They’re good for you – ounce for ounce, they contain more vitamin C than citrus fruit – and a full cup of them has only 50 calories, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
In celebration of the powerfully flavorful little fruit, I made three dishes. One was a straight-up dessert, one was an appetizer that was nevertheless somewhat sweet and one, just to be ornery, was an entree.
You don’t usually see strawberries in entrees. But I think you'll like this one. It’s grilled chicken breasts with strawberry red wine balsamic sauce. The recipe comes from Driscoll’s, the largest supplier of strawberries in the country.
Let’s start with the first part first: the boneless, skinless chicken breasts are grilled (or in my case, cooked on a grill pan). That gives them the inimitable, hearty taste of a grill (or a grill pan) that happens to pair particularly well with the sweet lightness of fruit.
Which brings us to the second part: the strawberry red-wine balsamic sauce. Flavored with shallots, garlic, bay leaf and thyme, this sauce has a warm and earthy taste that melds pleasantly with the grilled goodness of the chicken.
Which brings us to the third part: the strawberries themselves. Although most of the strawberries are cooked into the sauce, others are sliced and laid on top of the meat. They add not only a hint of sweetness to the dish but also an unexpectedly tart undertone that plays off the warmth of the sauce.
Put it all on a bed of rice, and you have a deliciously different meal.
For the appetizer course, I made a soup that is even more deliciously different. Strawberry soup, of course.
This recipe from the Food Network is deceptively easy to make, yet it packs a remarkably satisfying sweet-and-creamy punch. All you do is throw some strawberries, half and half, sour cream, sugar and lemon juice into a blender or food processor and puree it all together.
The result is a thick, rich soup that would be just the thing on a hot summer’s day. You wouldn’t want to eat too much of it – this is definitely an appetizer – but a little bit would make a smooth and elegant introduction to any summertime meal.
The strawberry dessert I made would also be perfect for serving to guests. Strawberry Mascarpone Trifle is a little more complicated, but only a little. It involves four different layers that should be assembled at the last minute, but each one can be made a day ahead of serving.
The bottom layer is the easiest of all: ladyfingers. Go to a store and buy ladyfingers (I went to an Italian specialty store on the Hill, but many grocers also carry them). Simple.
On top of them goes a strawberry puree, which is made by gently heating strawberries and sugar for a couple of minutes and then pureeing them.
The layer on top of that is sliced strawberries that have been macerating in a bit of sugar and lemon juice until they swim in their sweet juices.
And the layer on top of that is a quick mixture of mascarpone cheese, yogurt, vanilla and sugar. This combination is an intriguing alternative to the custard found in most trifles, and the yogurt gives it a lively tang.
If you have any strawberries left over, you might want to place a whole, fresh berry on the top of every serving. It just looks right. It just feels right.
What better way to celebrate the wonders found at this, the best time of the year?
STRAWBERRY MASCARPONE TRIFLE
Yield: 4 servings
1 1 / 2 pints fresh strawberries, rinsed, drained and hulled
1 / 2 cup granulated sugar
Juice of half a lemon
6 ounces mascarpone
1 / 4 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1 or 2 drops of pure vanilla extract
8 whole ladyfingers
1. Slice 1 pint of the strawberries thin and put them in a bowl. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar and the lemon juice. Toss lightly and set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Coarsely chop the remaining strawberries and put them in a small, nonreactive saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Cover and heat gently, stirring occasionally until the berries give off a fair amount of liquid, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the contents of the saucepan to a food processor and process to a smooth puree. Scrape the puree into a small bowl.
3. Put the mascarpone, yogurt, vanilla and remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar in a small bowl and stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until just smooth.
4. To assemble the trifle, split the ladyfingers in half and lay 4 halves in each of the 4 individual dessert bowls. Divide the strawberry puree among the bowls, spreading it over the ladyfingers. Cover each one with some of the strawberries and their juice, then top with a generous spoonful of the mascarpone mixture.
Per serving: 426 calories; 23 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 103 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 53 g carbohydrate; 35 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 68 mg sodium; 127 mg calcium.
Recipe by Ken Haedrich from “Cooking From the Garden”
COLD STRAWBERRY SOUP
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 pints strawberries, washed and hulled
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Mint leaves, for garnish
In a blender or food processor, puree strawberries. Pour into a large bowl and add half and half, sour cream, sugar and lemon juice. Stir until well-combined. Chill. Serve with garnish of mint leaves.
Per serving (based on 8): 141 calories; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 24 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 32 mg sodium; 70 mg calcium.
Recipe by Curtis Aikens, via Food Network
GRILLED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH STRAWBERRY RED WINE BALSAMIC SAUCE
Yield: 4 servings
1 package (16 ounces or 3 cups) strawberries, divided
4 teaspoons light olive or vegetable oil, divided
2/3 cups sliced shallots
1 clove garlic, pressed or chopped
1 small bay leaf
1 / 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cups red wine
3 / 4 cups chicken broth
1 1 / 2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (4 to 5 ounces each)
1. Hull and slice strawberries. Set aside.
2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots, garlic, bay leaf and thyme and stir until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 3 / 4 cup sliced strawberries and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add balsamic vinegar and simmer 1 minute. Add wine and simmer until liquid is reduced to about half. Add broth and simmer 5 minutes.
3. Whisk cornstarch and water together. Add mixture to saucepan and boil for 1 minute, stirring until thickened. Strain sauce and season with salt and pepper. Reheat just before serving.
4. Coat chicken with remaining 2 teaspoons oil; season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill or broil 4 to 5 minutes per side, until internal temperature is 170 degrees. Serve chicken surrounded by remaining sliced berries and warm strawberry sauce.
Per serving: 248 calories; 8 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 63 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 236 mg sodium; 47 mg calcium.
Recipe by Driscoll Strawberry Associates