In a perfect world, all our strawberries would be dead-ripe, intensely flavored and practically dripping with juice. And in a perfect world, we wouldn't need to worry about how those berries were harvested, shipped or stored. They would appear on our plates almost magically.
Until we achieve that sweet nirvana, we need to worry - and make compromises. If you shop carefully and taste before you buy, you can get very good strawberries at local farm stands and farmers' markets. You even can get pretty good ones at the supermarket.
But given the realities of modern agriculture and marketing, the run-of-the-mill strawberry most of us are stuck with is as far from perfect as the average political candidate.
I picked up a couple of pints of strawberries at my grocery store the other day, and when I tried to take them out of the shopping cart, a couple had fallen through a crack. They were wedged between the bars, and no matter how hard I pulled, they wouldn't squish enough to fit through. They were practically indestructible. And while that's good for cars and TV sets, with strawberries it's no compliment.
They didn't have much flavor either. So what do you do with bland, hard strawberries? If you treat them right, a whole lot of things.
Only God, with the help of farmers, can make a perfect strawberry; but with a little ingenuity, a home cook can make a pretty good one. The trick is a simple syrup, made by simmering red wine and sugar, in which you marinate the berries.
While no one will mistake this berry for a perfect, fresh one, it's wonderful in its own way. What's more, the basic formula (I tried several before coming up with 1 cup of wine and 1/4 cup of sugar, reduced by half over medium-high heat) can be altered to fit your taste.
For example, you can add spices to the simmering liquid. Be careful, though, because the flavor comes through quite strongly - maybe a clove or allspice berry or two per cup of wine. Or you could add citrus zest. Orange adds a nice aromatic lift.
It's interesting to make the syrup with different wines, too. I usually use a good jug wine; it tends to have more vibrant fruit character than a fine wine. Taking it one step up, zinfandels and syrahs are best among the inexpensive American varietals (though a light pinot noir would certainly be delicious). Among the imports, Chianti, Beaujolais and some of the lighter reds from the south of France work well, too. If, for some incomprehensible reason, you feel compelled to use a serious wine, you'll probably have to add more sugar than usual to make up for the tannins.
Once the syrup has cooked, cool it and strain it before adding it to the berries. The sugar in it will be enough to soften the fruit; actually heating the berries will dull their flavor.
How much syrup you make depends on how you plan to use it. I allow about 1/2 cup (after cooking) per pint of strawberries. After marinating, that gives you a lot of juice, which is nice to dribble around the plate as a sauce after you've drained the berries. If you only want to flavor the berries and have them remain fairly dry, use half that amount.
It's interesting how the flavor changes over time. Half an hour is enough to flavor the berries with a nice wine tartness. But after 1 1/2 hours, the balance has shifted - the juice tastes mostly of strawberries with an underlying layer of complexity.
The texture also changes. At half an hour, the berries still have some of their crunch (I told you, these guys are practically indestructible). At 1 1/2 hours, they have softened and feel more like strawberries when you bite them. If you marinate them much beyond that, refrigerate them to minimize further softening.
What do you do with these berries and syrup? This is where it gets fun. While they're not as good plain (again, the texture and flavor are not to be mistaken for fresh), they're terrific on top of vanilla ice cream. And they're perfect for a good shortcake, especially if you use a lot of the sauce. Speaking of which, how about soaking a round of white cake in wine-berry juice, topping it with marinated berries and pillowing on plenty of barely sweetened whipped cream?
It may seem like a lot of trouble to make syrup and marinate your strawberries for 1 1/2 hours. But not when you consider the alternative.
Pub Date: 6/17/98