It’s spring. The air is so downy and soft I could float away on it. The water in the San Francisco Bay is gemstone-blue and sequined with bits of sunlight. The trees are green again; the sky is cloudless and infinite. On days like these, I daydream about nothing but strawberries.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that robin redbreasts have strawberry bellies. The arrival of both bird and berry has always been my personal signal to get excited for warmer times. Even in Northern California, where we only have three seasons, the start of strawberry season is always occasion for at least a little joy.
Second only to white nectarines–which are sadly elusive until the height of summer–strawberries are my Absolute Favoritest Fruit. I love the brazen color, the insouciant tartness, the pop of seeds against my teeth. I love the way they play equally well with dark chocolate or black pepper, sugar or vinegar, cream or cheese. I love how they can be wholesome yet suggestive, adorable yet sexy at the same time. Kinda like me. (I like to think.)
Far as I’m concerned, strawberries are the easiest way to fancy up a meal. They’re a natural in desserts, of course, cheery and familiar. But in savory applications they become downright sophisticated. For Mother’s Day, I decided to do a bit of both.
To accompany that marvelous pasta, I made one of my favorite salads, a classic for good reason: strawberries, spinach, and feta cheese, with balsamic vinaigrette. This is the ultimate spring salad, as far as I’m concerned–three star ingredients, each in their starring season. (Yes, feta is seasonal. I know, I was surprised too.)
There’s not much to this salad, so the ingredients are key. You want feta straight from the brine, if possible. Strawberries at their peak of ripeness. Spinach so fresh, it talks back to the salad tongs. The combination is extraordinary, I promise.
On to the sugary portion of the program. My family loves fruit crumbles and crisps. So when I saw a recipe last week for a strawberry crisp–with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, no less!–I was a goner. It called to me from my blog reader. It haunted the edges of my thoughts. I had to.
This also seemed like an ideal dessert, because I could adjust the sweetness to my liking without completely mucking up the chemistry. I like my fruit to taste like fruit, not sugar. I also added a dash of cocoa to the topping, because, well, I never met a lily I couldn’t gild.
Now, full disclosure time: I think I flubbed the crumble. The strawberry filling was downright dreamy–jammy and glossy and mysterious and funky and just barely sweet. But the topping was…meh. I think I got lazy with the butter, and ended up with some lumps of doughy texture and some raw flour and some random oats and nuts.
Don’t let this happen to you. That strawberry filling is too luscious to languish under a half-baked topping. If you know how to fix it, please let this poor inept baker know!*
In the meantime, I’m going to go buy some more strawberries. This is love.
*Update: Wow. Olivia, I should have asked you way before. That tip to par-bake the crumble topping is absolute genius. (This is what I get for being friends with a culinary student.) Kate and I tried our hand at a gluten-free version, with a few additional tweaks, and it was heavenly. Heavenly. Updated recipe below.
Spinach and Strawberry Salad (once again, a pattern, not a recipe)
Whip up a batch of balsamic vinaigrette, then stem and quarter about a pint of strawberries and cut a small hunk of feta cheese into bite-size cubes. Toss the dressing, strawberries, feta and about 1/2 lb. spinach in a large bowl. This should serve 3 as a main dish, 4 as a side, or 2 if you get a couple strawberry-crazed people like, well, me.
Strawberry Crumble (makes enough for four 6-ounce ramekins, an 8×8 baking dish, or a 9-inch round pie pan)
Adapted from The Year in Food
16 oz. strawberries (about a pint and a half), stemmed and sliced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp all-purpose flour (for a gluten-free filling, substitute 1/2 tsp cornstarch or xanthan gum)
1/8 tsp ground black pepper, plus a little extra
For crumble topping:
2/3 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup sliced almonds, roughly chopped
Scant 1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tbsp all-purpose flour (for a gluten-free version, try sorghum or rice flour)
1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp sea salt
Preheat oven to 375º F, and position the racks to divide the oven into thirds. In a medium bowl, mix the filling ingredients together–if using cornstarch, dissolve it in the vinegar first. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine all the crumble ingredients except the butter, and mix thoroughly. Add the butter, and use your fingers or a pastry cutter to work the butter thoroughly into the dry ingredients, forming a crumbly mixture.
Grease your baking vessel(s) of choice, and line a baking sheet with foil. Spoon the filling into the dish(es), and spread the crumble topping in a thin layer on the baking sheet. Bake for about 8 minutes, with the crumble on the top rack and the filling on the bottom rack, just until the fruit starts to soften and the topping gets fragrant.
Remove the filling and topping from the oven. Sprinkle a little more black pepper on the filling, then spread the crumble over top. Return to the oven and bake about 12 minutes more, until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling underneath.
Remove from the oven and let sit 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream–although, to be fair, I had neither, and it was still quite tasty.