Thursday, June 3, 2010

strawberries with balsamic vinegar and mint

After all this waiting, they're finally here.

Last year there was barely a strawberry season to speak of. Remember the summer of cold and rain? The blight that would never dry out? Although I secretly love a cold summer so that I can keep wearing jeans and drinking hot coffee, I had enough mushy, moldy crops last summer to last me a lifetime (I guess none would be enough moldy, mushy crops, but you know what I mean, right?). Anyway, this summer, I'm ready for the heat. Two strawberry-less summers would be too much for me to bear.

As consolation for last summer, the strawberries around here are coming to their red perfection a full two weeks early. And man oh man are they here.

Strawberries open fruit season in these parts, and with them comes one more moment to try to learn the fleeting nature of all things lovely. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a whole lot of moments for that- I seem to get a fairly regular kick in the butt with some form of that lesson. So, before we start, while we have this moment before kids with stained faces and aching post-berry bellies, before packed freezer bags of peaches and blueberries fill up the freezer shelves, before there is one more trip to the hardware store for canning jars, and before looking out over the mountains of fruit on the counter top at 10 pm that must be dealt with TONIGHT!, let's just talk for a minute about the most important aspect of all this (in my humble opinion), that is, how to enjoy the fruit:

1. Remember that each berry and fruit has a small window of loveliness. Try to think ahead of time about what you might want to have at the end of the summer. Maybe you would like to freeze blueberries and peaches, but make strawberry and raspberry jam. There is a lot of fruit between here and October, and you don't have to put up every single one.

2. If you are new to canning, but would like to try it this summer, do not go it alone, and do not embark on the project when it is 110 degrees. I say this from experience.

3. If you go picking, do your best to only pick as much as you can use. When surrounded by acres of perfect raspberries, it can be hard to stop filling your buckets, but you want to try to avoid crying in your kitchen at midnight because you have more berries than you could possibly deal with before next week. I say this from experience too.

4. Okay, I know that as a Jewish woman partially raised by her depression-era grandmother, I seem to have a fair amount of guilt to contend with on a daily basis. I hope that you don't, and I am happy for you if that is the case. But if you tend to bring guilt in where it doesn't belong, this one is for you. When something is wonderful and short-lived, like strawberry season, enjoy it! But if life has gotten complicated and work is busy and it rained that Saturday you were planning on going picking, and lo and behold the strawberries are gone and you never made jam, then say "such is life!" and move on to the next one. Guilt has no place here, so throw it out the window.

5. Whether you are picking fruit yourself, or buying local fruit at your farmer's market or store, you know that you are in for some phenomenal snacks in these coming months. So, hooray! Let's make tarts and jam and smoothies and ice cream and pie and muffins and whatever else we can think up.

But first, let's eat strawberries.

If you have just gotten your first quart of strawberries this week, you know what I'm talking about. Gold, pure gold. You don't want to cook these, because them you couldn't taste the sun in them. These first strawberries are to be eaten raw, and they don't even need a thing.

But if you are willing to branch out a bit, to add a touch of this and a touch of that, just to enhance their already perfect perfection, then pull out the vinegar. If you haven't ever tried this, it may seem shocking, but stay with me for a minute here. A sprinkle of sugar and a drizzle of decent balsamic vinegar is magical for strawberries- you do not taste the vinegar- just more of the strawberries. It's like strawberries-plus. I know! You thought they couldn't get any better, but try it! A little bowl of this, and you can clink your forks to the start of fruit season.

Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Mint

serves 4-6

1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced (don't put them in the refrigerator!)
3 tablespoons of sugar, or more depending on your taste
1 teaspoon good quality balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped into fine ribbons

Toss the strawberries with the sugar. Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes. Drizzle the vinegar over the strawberries and add the mint leaves. Stir very gently.

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