Of all the sights and smells that suggest summer is on its way for sure, succulent, glistening strawberries top the list. In season, fresh strawberries can be a bargain fruit—especially if you pick your own, or buy a four-quart basket at the farmers' market. And because the season is relatively long, due to the range of last frost dates and the range of early and late bearing varieties, in a good year we can count on them from mid-April through mid-June. There are so many ways to eat them that I've written up two—one for putting by, one for a special dessert.
So even if you're not ready to stock your pantry and freezer with enough incarnations of this natural sweet to carry you through a year of locavore eating, it's rewarding to play with the possibilities. Before the days of deep freezers, a common way of preserving fruit was turning it into jams, jellies and preserves, and strawberries are famously delicious this way. Jam-making is easier than it sounds; forget the hot-water bath canning treatment unless you're making a large quantity. Just stick your jam jar in the fridge (if you'll eat it within a month) or freezer. I like to put it up in half-pint jars for defrosting one at a time. If you like the idea of playing Foxfire or little-house-in-the-big-woods and want rows of beautiful red jam jars lining your kitchen counters through the winter, be sure to consult a boiling water bath expert (www.pickyourown.org) or The Joy of Cooking for step-by-step instructions in home canning.
Sunny Strawberry Jam
4 cups strawberries, bright red and not too ripe, washed, dried, stemmed and sliced in half before measuring (bigger is not always better)
4 cups cane sugar (yes, that's a lot of sugar, but try this true method before experimenting with less)
juice of 1 lemon
optional: 1 seeded, cored, unpeeled storage apple (locally, that means from last fall) cut into small chunks
Put the berries in a heavy-bottomed 10-inch stock pot or similar pan. Run a sharp knife through them a few times, slicing randomly so that the juice releases. Cover with the sugar. Cook on very low heat, stirring mixture gently until it gets juicy. Turn heat to medium and stop stirring. When it reaches a rolling boil, leave it alone, except for pulling a wooden spoon through it occasionally to make sure the jam is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. After 15 minutes, tilt pot to see that the mixture is thickened and setting. It should move like molasses across the bottom of the pot. If it doesn't, continue cooking and testing in 5-minute increments, but no longer than 30 minutes total. Remove pot from heat, drizzle with the lemon juice. Allow to cool completely. Spoon into super-clean jars that have been sterilized in the dishwasher. Recycling wide-mouth jars emptied of salsa or tapenade is one good way to do this. The point is to keep the process relaxing and fuss-free and to honor local fruit in season by putting it by for later use.
Note: If your jam doesn't thicken properly or becomes a little runny after refrigeration, not to worry. Who can complain about a little red delight oozing off a biscuit or toast? You can always heat it up and use it as a chunky syrup for pancakes.
This is a pretty, Americanized version of something you might see in a European pastry shop where the "cream" filling would be some light-as-air, secret recipe custard. If you have a tart pan with a removable bottom, it's worth the effort for the visual result; otherwise use a 9-inch pie plate. If you like the idea, but don't have time for the whole thing, use the uncooked strawberry topping for any prebaked-then-chilled pie recipe with a filling that can stand the weight of the berries.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 sticks salted butter
1 egg, beaten
8 ounces cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1 quart strawberries, ripe but not overripe, washed, dried, stemmed and halved
1/2 cup any red jam or jelly (raspberry, currant, ligonberry—or strawberry jam as above, any chunks of fruit removed), thinned with one tablespoon water or brandy
Make the crust by pulsing flour, powdered sugar and butter in a food processor until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the egg and pulse just until mixture starts to hold together. If it seems too dry, add a tablespoon of ice water at a time until moist enough to pull together and form into a flattened round. Cover in floured wax paper and chill one hour. Roll chilled dough into a disk an inch or two larger in diameter than your tart pan and transfer to pan, fitting the crust up against the sides of pan. Prick crust with fork. Freeze dough for 15 minutes while you preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. If crust starts to bubble, prick more holes. Set aside to cool.
For the filling, beat the ingredients together in the order they are listed. Spread over crust evenly. At this point you can chill tart overnight, or up to 24 hours. Two to six hours before serving, remove sides of tart pan and place on serving plate. Arrange the halved berries, rounded side up, on the top in a spiral working from the center out. Heat jelly or jam with water or brandy in microwave until just melted and blended, then brush on top. Chill until serving.