The weather seems to be a bit confused. In our neck of the woods, sunshine was delayed and a grey-green spring seemed eternal. In other parts of the world, the sun came out as fiercely as a scorned and wigged-out Whitney Houston battling with Bobby Brown.
Though you wouldn't know about all this climactic confusion on the grocery shelves. For the most part, the produce section ticked along like clockwork, to its own peculiar rhythm dictated by consumer training and expectation.
Slowly, you know things are starting to sink back into a skewed normality as the raspberries do start to appear, as does watermelon from some place far more searing with its sunshine and thirsty in water, and the inevitable display of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The latter often comes displayed among a mountain of pre-made yellow sponge "shortcakes," brick worked like a pyramid, flanked by the ever faithful and seemingly ever-present strawberry. It's a sight to behold. Summer cookouts, barbecues, and casual neighborly get togethers. It's emblematic of summer.
Too bad then, that they don't often taste like summer. When put together in the suggested shortcake, these gorgeous gems turn out to be no more interesting than a dimwitted, but attractive woman. Bosomy, luscious-looking, but anemic in personality. They take on the personalities of the forces of whipped cream and sugar and industrial cake, losing any characteristic of its own. What happened to tasting sunshine? What happened to tasting an honest-to-god strawberry?
Herein, lies the trouble of much produce we come across today, no matter the season or product. They're just plain shitty. Coming up against these disappointments, in a moment of frustration, I've created a recurring section called "WHAT TO DO WITH ... [insert shitty produce item here]."
It's a fact of life that we do not all live by bucolic farms and that most of our best friends and neighbors are not organic, small-scale farmers. Most of us forage with big metal cages on wheels at a pace that can be described as the exact opposite of leisurely. For the sake of convenience, we often sacrifice quality. And if you're like me, you do one of two things: 1.) Swear profusely and throw said produce into the trash or 2.) Summon up a modicum of optimism and figure out a way to make something like say, the shitty strawberries I encountered the other day, somewhat less shitty.
Keep in mind what I offer here is one possible solution, not a cure. Tricks, however clever, could never elevate the gi-normous strawberries on steroids into the tiny, tender, aromatic fruit I binged on while traveling through a place like Oregon.
We learn to make do with things like:
Balsamic vinegar. A few drops into a pile of hulled (stemmed) and sliced strawberries with some granulated sugar, or brown sugar, or runny honey, adds complexity and nuance you'd find in your average wild strawberry (what's that?) If you've got the stuff, "tradizionale" is where it's at. A few hours of maceration and you have the most cosmetic surgery procedure completed on the planet.
Considering it's priced like liquid gold (little vials running around $200), it might not be a practical solution for everyone. So another option:
Make your balsamic syrup. Take 1 cup of balsamic vinegar (a good everyday variety, read the labels, only balsamic and high quality wine vinegar allowed - see my rant below) and pour into a small saucepan with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a couple of whole black peppercorns. Bring to a simmer and let it reduce by half. Take out the peppercorns and you have dark syrup. Once cooled, drizzle this over the strawberries as you would tradizionale.
If you happen to have other vinegars that plays well with fruit like I do here in Salt Lake City (yes, I said Salt Lake City. Not every food blog comes out of the bloody Bay Area), feel free to add that as well. Me, I'm a huge fan of Slide Ridge Honey Wine Vinegar (the bottle on the right). I consider it to be the Rocky Mountain equivalent of balsamic, based on mead from wildflower honey collected in Northern Utah. I can only describe the flavor and texture as dazzling. It's wonderful as a digestif (tangy, sweet, and so good), a wonderful replacement for white sugar in glazed carrots (really just butter and honey in braised carrots), and dreamy with strawberries. Honey and fruit - quintessential summer.
Keep in mind, people like to make a buck. Especially companies who make standard fare food. So if these companies notice us willing to pay for balsamic vinegar they're gonna start offering balsamic vinegar. The problem is that most balsamic you'll come across is nothing more than white vinegar with some grape must and caramel coloring. Oh, and guar gum for texture. What you essentially have is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a tranny of a condiment, that looks like balsamic but sure as hell does not taste and smell like it. My hard and fast rule: the smell of balsamic vinegar should never ever remind you of dying Easter eggs.
Once the strawberries and vinegar have mingled, they're good on their own or over cake - short cake, angel food cake, sponge cake, etc. They're just as magical over ice cream with some shortbread cookies on the side. Any remnants, including the intense liquor of fruit juice, sugar, and vinegar, are quite good scraped over Greek yogurt or added to a smoothie (that's somewhat healthy, right?)