Spring for Strawberries

Can it be that the days are getting just a bit longer, perhaps imperceptibly so but longer just the same? As spring approaches, I watch for telltale signs that announce that warmer weather is on the way. Are those pale-green leaves sprouting on the towering pecan trees in my yard or on the graceful bald cypresses on the water’s edge? Even the air seems lighter, softer.

Up to the east and north of Lake Pontchartrain, in the parishes of Livingston and Tangipahoa, the harbinger of spring is the appearance of scrumptious, plump strawberries, ripe and ready for the picking. Since the 1930s, this area has been a stronghold for Louisiana’s berry crop, which, by the way, came about rather curiously.

There simply wasn’t much else that could be grown in that part of the state. The climate and soil could not support a major crop such as, say, sugar cane. But the railroad went right through this region, and there was a need to load up the freight trains with something to carry back up north. It was at this time that Italian immigrants settled in these parishes and began cultivating strawberries.

Bingo! Load the freight cars with fresh strawberries! But it wasn’t long before the locals realized what a treasure they had, and there began a great demand for these sweet-tart homegrown berries with which to make a variety of delights, and now the strawberry crop stays home.

So much the better for you and for me. After all, what better treat in the spring and summer than that all-American dessert known as strawberry shortcake? Or perhaps you prefer yours made into yummy jam or served with cream or in ice cream, soufflés or mousses. I am always hard-pressed to decide what to do with my flat or two of Louisiana-grown strawberries each year when I come back from my annual pilgrimage to pick them up at my favorite roadside peddler.

I adore Strawberries Romanoff (berries soaked in orange-flavored liqueur and then topped with whipped cream), and I like them dipped in chocolate or whipped cream or floating in cool champagne. Yes, sir, these bright-red berries are quite versatile.

It’s no wonder that the strawberry has been around for quite a while. It was valued in Roman times for its therapeutic properties. The alchemists of the Middle Ages considered it to be a panacea. A gardener of Louis XIV managed to grow strawberries in the greenhouses of Versailles because the king was so fond of them. Smart man.
Fresh strawberries are an excellent source of Vitamin C and are low in calories. When you go to the market, select bright, shiny, clean strawberries with full, solid red color; bright-green caps attached; and no moisture or decay spots. It’s best to use the berries within two to three days. Don’t wash the berries until you plan to use them.

Wash them gently and quickly in a bowl of cool water. Lift the berries from the water, and then remove the caps.

Strawberries don’t need any fancy treatment and are ideal for snacks, plain or dipped in a little powdered sugar. They’re also perfect for topping puddings, cereals and salads.

One of my spring rituals is to host my own strawberry festival if I can’t get to Ponchatoula where the official strawberry festival is held each spring. Armed with a flat of the berries, my husband and I make a variety of desserts to serve our guests.

Here are a few of our favorites.
Strawberries Romanoff
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup Grand Marnier or Cointreau
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
2 pints fresh strawberries, washed, hulled
    and patted dry
2 cups sweetened whipped cream
Fresh mint sprigs for garnish

Combine the sugar, Grand Marnier or Cointreau and lemon zest in a large bowl, and stir to dissolve the sugar.

Add the strawberries, and stir gently to coat evenly. Cover, and chill for at least 4 hours. Spoon into individual cups or bowls, top with whipped cream, and garnish with mint. Serves 6 to 8.

Strawberry Cobbler
Cobbler batter:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons frozen butter
4 tablespoons very cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
5 to 6 cups fresh strawberries, hulled,
    rinsed and patted dry
3/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter
Fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

To make the batter, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a round 2-quart baking dish. Combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the butter and shortening, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 4 tablespoons of the cold water, and process until the dough begins to cling together, about 10 seconds.

Add more cold water if necessary. Gather the dough into a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Roll out the dough into a large ragged circle, and carefully transfer it to the prepared dish to line the bottom and sides, allowing any excess to hang over.

Fill the dough with the berries, and sprinkle the sugar over them. Dot them with the butter, and bring the edges of the pastry over the mixture. The edges do not have to join completely.

Bake for about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let cool. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Serves 6.

Strawberry Meringues
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3 pints strawberries
Nonfat yogurt or whipped cream topping

Beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar, and beat until stiff but not dry. Gradually add the sugar a little at a time. Continue beating until the mixture is stiff and glossy. Fold in the vanilla and pecans.

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Cover a baking sheet with brown or parchment paper. Use a saucer to draw 6 to 8 circles on the paper to help shape the meringue shells. Drop the meringue into the centers of the circles. Use the back of a metal spoon to shape the meringues, building up the sides to form shells or cups. 

Bake for one hour or until the meringues are lightly browned. Turn off the oven, and leave the meringues in until they cool completely. Carefully peel off the paper from the bottoms of the meringues, and transfer them to a wire rack.

Wash the strawberries, and remove the caps. Set aside 6 to 8 whole berries for decoration. Slice the remaining berries, and toss them with a little sugar or sweetener if you wish. Fill each shell with the berries, and top with either the yogurt or whipped topping. Top each with a whole strawberry to serve. Serves 6 to 8.

My husband is an ace at making strawberry shortcake. He always does a spectacular job making the shortcakes himself rather than using those little sponge-like cups that are displayed near the strawberries in the produce section around this time of year. 
Shortcake, for those of you who may not know, is really nothing more than a rich biscuit that is split in half and then filled and topped with sliced fruit and whipped cream.

Quick Shortcakes
3/4 cup half-and-half
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups biscuit mix
Fresh berries of your choice
Whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the first 5 ingredients until just blended. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat or roll to about 1/2-inch thickness. Cut the dough with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Brush them with a little butter, let them cool, and split them in half. Fill them with fresh sliced strawberries (or blackberries or raspberries) sweetened with a little sugar, and top them with whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8.

Then there’s this version:

Strawberry Shortcake
4 cups hulled and sliced strawberries
1 tablespoon sugar or more to taste
1 pint whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups bleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into chips
3/4 cup milk
Whole berries and fresh mint springs for
    garnish (optional)

Place the berries in a bowl, and sprinkle with sugar to taste. Cover, and refrigerate. Whip the cream, and add the vanilla (and a little sugar if you want it sweet). Cover, and chill.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients, and then cut in the chilled butter with a pastry blender or two knives. When the mixture resembles coarse meal, add the milk, and mix well and quickly. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead briefly.

Roll out the dough to 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 3-inch rounds, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Brush the tops with a little milk, and sprinkle, if you like, with a little sugar. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Cool the biscuits for a minute or so, and then split them open. Spread each half lightly with butter. Then top the bottom halves with the berries and some whipped cream. Cover with the other halves. Add more whipped cream and berries. Garnish with a berry or two and mint sprigs. Serves 6 to 8.

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