Across the Cutting Board with RIS: Springing Up Strawberries

As spring comes into full swing, with the last of the dogwood petals scattered about the ground, a film of pollen blanketing your windshield each morning and the faint waft of honeysuckle catching in the breeze, I am always reminded of my grandmother. In many ways she was the harbinger of every season to me, because with each turning, falling or sprouting of the leaves, her menu would change and the fridge would be stocked with a different family of ingredients. In autumn there were beets and walnuts, in winter Brussels sprouts and greens. And one of the first things to mark the spring was a mountainous bowl of fresh strawberries, which I made a break for as soon as my father stopped the car by her front lawn. My grandmother would put them in front of me (the whole bowl, usually) along with a small ramekin of powdered sugar. I would eat them, dipping them feverishly into the silky sugar, until my mother stopped me.

Shameful as it is to admit, I am of the philosophy that there is no such thing as a bad strawberry. While I do my best to eat seasonally, locally and organically whenever possible, if you hand me a shrink-wrapped pack of dried up, imported strawberries in the middle of winter, I will devour the tasteless fruits with relish. The audible snap of their small seeds between my teeth, their crisp pillowy firmness and frilled green stems, are perfect to me in whatever incarnation. So this just means that April, when strawberries actually come into season, is a month to showcase nature’s most divine of creations in its purest and most beautiful form.

“Strawberries are spring, but they don’t come soon enough,” says chef and restaurateur Ris Lacoste. “Along with rhubarb—their faithful companion—we anticipate their arrival, having reached our limit of the stored apples and pears that were once so crisp and delightful last fall. Where are they? When are they coming?”

“Come late March, I must admit that I do cheat and use California berries,” says Ris, “because I can’t wait until mid-late April when they first make their appearance in the farmers market stalls around town. Their faint nuttiness, bright caramel-like sweetness and meaty firmness are a perfect companion to the early spring, where the days bounce between cold and hot. As a light snack in the sunlight, or a sweet, fresh dessert on a late April evening after a dinner of grilled meats and a sip of rosé, they couldn’t be more satisfying.”

Strawberries, when used correctly, are wonderful additions to main courses as well. A great savory dish with strawberries is to slice them thin, toss them in a pinch of sugar, and pile with crumbled goat cheese over blackened or grilled tuna steak. The sweet-spicy-savory-smoky components, as well as the varying planes of textures and temperatures, make for a refreshing and delicious supper.

Strawberry plants are surprisingly resilient and easy to grow, and as such are grown widely across the globe, from Central America to Finland. The “seeds” on the outside of the fruit, are not actually seeds at all. They are in fact miniature dried fruits, similar to sunflower seeds (if you have access to a microscope, it’s worth taking a peak). During the strawberry’s ripening process, the cells inside the fruit enlarge and pull apart from one another, creating tiny air pockets in the gaps, which is responsible for that distinct soft-crunchy texture. However, this structure weakens quickly, especially with large amounts of rain, rendering them quick to soften.

Strawberries do have certain idiosyncrasies: thanks to their thin skin and fragile structure, they don’t have much longevity and, unless frozen, need to be eaten within a few days (which isn’t usually a problem, Ris points out with a smile). Nor do strawberries improve once picked, such as bananas or pears, so they must be picked ripe from the vine. “On the upswing, however” says Ris, “they are among the fruits with the highest antioxidant content, along with blueberries, cherries and red grapes. In other words, they are good for you.”

The California Driscolls are a far cry from the smaller local strawberries you find at the market, she explains. “But I have yet to have as good a strawberry as the wild strawberries in France. However, wherever you are, mother nature has more to do with a season’s crop than any other factor. They need limited rain and lots of sun. A rainy season like last spring will dilute them. A lack sun will render them flavorless and sugarless.

“Nothing can beat a perfect, deep red, sweet, fruity strawberry. Don’t be fooled by appearance. Talk to your farmer. Ask him if you can taste a berry before you buy. Certainly a little sugar can help almost any strawberry, but that’s not the point.”

One of Ris’ favorite memories is of homemade strawberry jam on buttered toast. “I have since instructed all of my pastry chefs to combine the flavors of toasty yeast, butter and strawberries. Strawberry tarts in puff pastry do the trick, strawberry sauce with a dab of butter in it is amazing. A recipe I use every year at this time is my friend Terri Horn’s rhubarb white chocolate bread pudding and a strawberry butter sauce. I actually use it in every season, just because I love it—I simply change the fruit. Peaches and raspberries is a good one in the summer. Pears in the fall is another.”

Terri Horn's Rhubarb Bread Pudding Serves 12

1 loaf brioche or challah, crusts trimmed off and cubed 6 cups rhubarb, cut into 1" pieces Chunks of white chocolate if desired, to preference

Custard 1 quart heavy cream ½ vanilla bean, scraped 9 eggs 6 oz sugar

Sauce 1 quart strawberries, halved Sugar to taste 2 tablespoons butter Reserved juice from cooked rhubarb

Place the rhubarb on a rimmed cookie sheet, cover generously with sugar and roast in the oven until just softening, 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and place the rhubarb in a strainer placed over a bowl and let sit until ready to use. (Reserve the juices for the sauce.) This can be done ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Whisk together eggs and sugar.

Heat cream with vanilla until boiling and temper bit by bit into egg mixture.

Strain the custard through a fine meshed sieve.

Fill a buttered mold (or multiple molds) halfway with brioche cubes. Sprinkle on a portion of cooked rhubarb. Cover with more brioche cubes. Insert 3 or 4 chunks of white chocolate into each pudding.

Pour warm custard over the brioche and let sit for 30 minutes, adding more as it sits to keep the mold full. Bake in a water bath at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, depending on size of the mold, until the custard is just cooked through and top is golden. Insert a fork into the custard and it should come out clean when done.

Let sit in the water bath until cool enough to handle. Remove the pudding from the ramekins and place on a cookie sheet. These can also be done ahead and reheated before serving. 

Meanwhile make the strawberry sauce by combining strawberries, sugar, butter and reserved rhubarb syrup in a saucepan. Cook for just a few minutes until all has melded and berries are soft. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Puree in a blender. Serve warm or make ahead and serve cold.

Gently warm the puddings in the oven before serving.  Serve with the strawberry sauce and whipped cream. If you have some creme anglaise hanging about, it is a delightful addition. Garnish with mint, fanned strawberries and a fleck of powdered sugar.

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