One of those things I wanted to do and never got around to was writing to LSU food scientists asking them to stop making our Louisiana strawberries more like California’s. In other words, large and shippable. Maybe others complained because I seem to notice a slight change for the better in the last couple of years.
I once bit into a huge and beautiful California berry that had the texture of an apple. I couldn’t believe it. Strawberries should be soft and pliable and luscious like ours. Yes, I know that growers want to sell them outside of south Louisiana, and I want them to make money, but there is nothing like the small, sweet, blood-red-all-the-way-through berries that I ate as a child when visiting my grandmother. My favorite way was strawberry shortcake, but a close second was a strawberry custard pie.
I think a fruit tart is a beautiful thing to serve when entertaining. Easy enough, they taste as good as strawberry custard pie, but look like they were made by a professional baker. All you need is a tart pan with a removable bottom. They come in all sizes, including 4-inch for individual servings.
Strawberries help produce the most delicious sweet and savory salads when combined with the contrasting tastes of gourmet greens, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. On the sweet side, a few candied pecan pieces complement the berries and make the salad pop.
We used to go to Ponchatoula to buy flats of berries, a fun trek if you’ve never done it, but now local grocery stores sell them during the season, which runs from mid-March to May when the weather cooperates. I also look for roadside farmers’ trucks with Ponchatoula signs, and if you like festivals, you can go to the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival April 12-14. Look online for information about the fest’s cooking contests, music stages, parade, car show and more at lastrawberryfestival.com
With summer almost here, I’ve got the same gripe about tomatoes that I have about strawberries. Those agricultural scientists want our Creole tomatoes to be round, firm, red and perfect, but I want misshapen, juicy and slightly sweet with a great texture, just like they used to be. Maybe I’m just too picky.
2 pounds (2-3 pints) Louisiana strawberries
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small chunks
2 tablespoons cold butter-flavor Crisco, chilled
¼ cup ice water
2 cups milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup strawberry jelly
1 teaspoon water
1. Rinse and let strawberries dry. Slice off stems so that berries will sit flat. Set aside.
2. Measure all ingredients for the crust. Combine flour, sugar and salt in a small bowl and place in the freezer for 30 minutes. When chilled, place flour mixture in a food processor. Add butter and shortening and pulse 10 times until the butter is in small pieces. Add ice water and process until dough comes together. Dump dough on a lightly floured board and form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Measure all ingredients for the pastry cream. In a medium pot, combine the flour and sugar. Heat milk in a small pot until hot but not boiling. Beat egg yolks with a whisk until thickened. When milk is hot, pour and whisk into the flour-sugar mixture, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture has boiled for a minute or two. Whisk a little of the hot mixture into the eggs and gradually pour the egg mixture into the milk mixture while whisking. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until temperature reaches 170 degrees. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap to keep a crust from forming. Refrigerate until cool.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. When dough has chilled, place it on the floured board and roll out large enough to fit into the bottom and sides of a 12-inch tart pan. Fold in half and place on one side of pan, folding top half over to other side. Gently tap the pastry into place without stretching it. When pastry is fitted into the pan, slide the rolling pin over the top edges to trim off excess. Line the tart pan with a piece of buttered aluminum foil, butter side down, and pour a layer of dried beans or rice over the foil to weight down the crust. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan carefully from the oven and remove the beans and foil. Use a fork to prick the bottom of the pastry and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more until lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
5. When pastry and cream are cooled, fill the crust with the pastry cream. Arrange berries on top of cream. Melt jelly and water in a small pot and use a pastry brush to paint berries with the glaze. Refrigerate until serving. Serves 8.
Strawberries got their name from the straw gathered from the woods for spreading around the plants. At least, that is the most commonly believed story about how they were named, and many farmers in Louisiana use wheat straw or pine needles to mulch their plants. This keeps the berries from touching the soil, which could keep them from fully developing.