Strawberries are synonymous with summer. It’s easy to see why, too; their shape and scarlet hue look like little hearts ready to burst–what’s not to love?! When the perfect specimen from a perfect plant is perfectly ripe they are sweet as candy and ready to burst with syrupy juice, but also have the slightest tartness to them–not sour, just slightly tart. They are easily the most adored and popular berry around. When we enter summer months you don’t need to look that hard for strawberry festivals or for them to start piling up at farmers’ markets. Our affinity towards them is nothing new, though. Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle/ And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best/ Neighbored by fruit of baser quality” and as far back as the mid-1800’s people would throw strawberry shortcake parties to usher in the warmer months. They certainly take center stage come summer–ironic, being that botanically they’re an accessory fruit.
Unfortunately, these days we could interpret Shakespeare as meaning that the nettle is the superior fruit, ripening best near the inferior strawberry (I say this jokingly… the only nettle that I can think of that bears fruit is horsenettle and its poisonous). They can be like tomatoes, in a way; you either get a good one or a bad one and there is often no in between, and our summers are still consumed with adoration for both. Often times the strawberries we get are either mealy or rock-hard, soft in a waterlogged sort of way or totally unyielding, harshly sour or void of flavor. This year, for about 2 weeks, I was able to buy strawberries from the grocery store that were so perfect in their sweetness that they almost tasted synthetic. Now we’re back to donning ruby red accessories that, though they catch the light from a summer sun so well, they are far from a genuine gem, although they’re probably just as hard.
Disappointing and heresy to our nostalgia it may be, a batch of lackluster fruits is not the end of the world. As long as they are not totally hard and chalky and have at least the slightest lingering strawberry flavor and a drop or two of juice to give there are ways to remedy them. This is where they’re not like a tomato; a bad tomato is useless, but a bad strawberry is like a project boyfriend– “I can change him”. I’m not sure when it originated or even where, though suspicions are obvious, but there’s an almost neoclassic enthusiasm about strawberries with balsamic. There’s no real mystery there; balsamic is less acidic and much sweeter than other vinegars, due to its aging process, a likeliness to the balance of a perfect strawberry, but with notes of fresh fig and dried fruits. Its pairing is another linkage to tomatoes, though I can’t say I’m a fan of tomatoes and balsamic but it sure is popular. Either splash a bit of a good, aged balsamic over some chopped strawberries with a little sugar and let it sit at room temperature to get the juices flowing or reduce some balsamic in a small saucepan over low heat until its thick like honey and pour over some berries, fortified with sugar (don’t use anything too aged or expensive here, as cooking it looses some of the finer notes that justify a steeper price tag). Simply mixing some berries with a bit of sugar, splash of pomegranate juice and a pinch of very finely ground black pepper actually brings out their sweet and sharp flavors and gives them an interesting little spike, perhaps a method to distract from less than ideal produce. Stewing or roasting the fruit is also a surefire way to improve on them, too. Oh, and macerated strawberries with basil–c’mon! Really, what can’t be improved upon with garden-fresh basil?! (a lot, I’m sure, but I choose to live in ignorance)
And you can’t talk about strawberries without talking about shortcakes, too. The dessert that inspired those festive parties way back when can still do so today. Sure, they seem a little kitschy, maybe even a little too typical or even safe but there’s a level of indulgence of good strawberry shortcake that reaches truly hedonistic status. Now, according to a raggedy copy of my grandma’s Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1965), shortcake “is always made with biscuit dough, not cake, and is served with unsweetened heavy cream, un-whipped” and I’d say that’s a pretty traditional definition, shortcake being so termed based upon the shortening used in it. Admittedly, the way I make these shortcakes does not fit within this sacramental guidelines–semantics. It’s the way I prefer to make strawberry shortcakes, not least because its easy, but mostly because I love the sweet + lemongrass + strawberry combination. Strawberries go so well with mint, and not just as a mere pitiful garnish to them; the sweetness of fresh mint leaves brings out that of the strawberries, but also gives a foil to their flavor by way of green, green grassiness. If your strawberries are sweet enough to cause cavities, lemon zest and, minimally, juice helps bring out some subtle and necessary tartness without being too intrusive. Sure, you can use mint and lemon in these but lemongrass is where its at for me. Its aromatic, herbal, and sour, but without acidity; all the wonderful qualities of mint and lemon, and none of their intrusive ones.
So, all this fawning aside, it’s as simple as…
Lemongrass, sugar and water go into a small saucepan.
Bring it to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Then let it all steep until its completely cooled. Strain the syrup through a sieve and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready. Take the lemongrass stalks and plunk them into some heavy cream. Its best to let the lemongrass infuse the cream for 12 hours but a little less won’t make much of a difference. Cover this and put it in the fridge, too.
Then, anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours before you’re planning to eat these, finely chop about a pound of strawberries (“about” because I’ll inevitably eat a few) and stir in a little sugar. The exact amount of sugar is hard to say because it depends on the sweetness of the berries but for this amount I’d guess anywhere from 1 to 4 tablespoons is sufficient. Leave these at room temperature and stir every so often if you can.
Cut a pound cake into cubes, about 3/4″ – 1″, and put them in some clear glasses. I just use store bought pound cake. Its one of my favorite grocery store bakery items, specifically for recipes like this. Sure, you could make your own but with the freshness of the berries, their juices soaking in a bit, and the aromatic, mellow, citrusy waft of the lemongrass cream, you really wont notice the difference between homemade and store bought cake.
Once the strawberries have melted the sugar down into a lacquered, crimson syrup, spoon the berries and their sauce evenly over each glass. Press down on the strawberries, lightly, to encourage the cake to soak in just a bit of their liquid. You can do this up to an hour in advance.
Just before serving, pour the cream into a large bowl, through a sieve to remove the lemongrass. Discard the stalks. Whip the cream until it begins to thicken–just before soft peaks would form. Beat in some of the lemongrass syrup. I would say to start with about 2 tablespoons of syrup and work your way up until it reaches a level of sweetness you’re happy with. Odds are you won’t need all of the syrup but don’t worry–there’s a use for it!* Beat the cream until soft to medium peaks form and distribute the high-gloss cream evenly atop each glass.
All that’s left to do is enjoy as absolutely as possible. These, like summer, never seem to last quite long enough.
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*If you have any leftover lemongrass syrup, pour some (2 tablespoons, more or less) into a glass, stir in the juice of half a lemon, fill it with ice and fill it with carbonated water–easy lemongrass soda!