panna cotta, strawberries, strawberry balsamic jam, summer harvest, summer-o-rama, this is why we're fat

Summer-O-Rama: Strawberries

Apples and Bananas were always the fruits du jour in my house growing up. Oranges came juiced, in plastic jugs or concentrated in cardboard tubes. Fruit salad was a cocktail and, like cranberries, came in cans with ring tab pulls. Strawberries were served with whipped cream between two layers of sponge cake, a favorite birthday choice for my mother and sister. Later, I enjoyed them chocolate dipped or on ice and blended into a daiquiri. Yet, I didn’t want them on my cheesecake or in my ice cream. I’d pass on the jams, jellies and preserves as I was raised a strict Welch’s Grape Jelly girl. But, like so many other foods, living in Maine has changed my opinion of the strawberry.

In the land known for blueberries, for me, it is the strawberry that has come to represent summer in Maine. I think this is due to the fact that their appearance at the Farmers Markets signals the true beginning of the local produce season. The single hue of greens is finally broken by the brilliant pop of red berries at nearly every stall.

It’s also a food whose local season I abide by. While I tip my hat to the California and Florida producers who provide berries to our supermarkets throughout the year, I have not had one that compares. Sure, a quart of locally grown berries will set you back an extra dollar or so, but the quality and flavor remains more than worth it. Where I use to shrug off the strawberry, I now find myself a bit of a snob.

So, when it came time to celebrate the strawberry for the latest round of ‘O-Rama,’ I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to show the berry a bit of love.

The idea for the jam came first and was originally intended to be paired with a torchon of foie gras.

Strawberry Balsamic Jam

8 cups washed and hulled strawberries (about 1 1/2 lbs), halved if large

5 cups sugar
½ tsp unsalted butter
5 tbsp balsamic vinegar

  1. Pour strawberries into a large, deep, heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the strawberries are boiling, add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved. The sugar tends to burn on the bottom, so keep it moving until it is thoroughly dissolved. Bring to a boil and then add the butter. (The addition of butter keeps the foam volume down.) Turn the heat down to medium-low and boil the jam gently for 40 minutes, until thickened to a loose, soft jam. Stir in the balsamic vinegar.

  2. Bring 6 half-pint jars and their bands to a boil in a large pot of water fitted with a rack. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove the jars with tongs. Simmer new lids in a small pan of hot water, to soften the rubberized flange. When the jars are dry, but still hot, use a slotted spoon to fill the jars with strawberries, leaving 1/2 to 3/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims, set on the lids and screw on the bands fingertip tight. You can water bath the syrup the same way you do the jam.

  3. Place the jars on the rack in the pot and cover by at least 3 inches of water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to medium and gently boil the jars for 10 minutes. (If you use pint jars, process for 15 minutes.) Remove the cover and then, after about 5 minutes, remove the jars. Allow them to rest on a dish towel for 6 hours. Check the seals and store in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

However, various issues came up and I switched over to something just as rich but where the ingredients were already on hand: Panna Cotta.

Spring Panna Cotta

Nonstick spray, for greasing ramekins

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

4 strips lemon peel* I used orange

1 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin

1/2 lemon, juiced*again, I used orange

1 1/2 cups creme fraiche, room temperature

Directions

1 Grease 4 (1-cup) size ramekins with nonstick spray to evenly coat the insides.

2. Begin by adding milk, cream and sugar to a pot and set over medium heat. Add vanilla bean and seeds and 4 strips of lemon peel (try not to get any of the white pith). Bring to a simmer. Once the mixture begins to bubble, turn off the heat.

3. While the mixture is heating, combine the gelatin and lemon juice, whisking as you go to avoid lumps. Temper the gelatin with about 1/2 cup of the heated milk/cream mixture and whisk back into the remaining mixture. Strain cream mixture using a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the vanilla pod and lemon peel. Add the creme fraiche and gently whisk to combine the mixture. Distribute evenly among the ramekins and place in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours or until they are set.

It was the classic pairing of strawberries and cream: rich, tart and sweet. It was indulgent until the very last bit was gone.

While the jam was a bit syrupy, it would have been wonderful with the foie. Too thin to spread with peanut butter, I could easily see it being used instead of syrup with french toast or even to sauce a rare cooked seared duck breast. The yield, just over three pints, and canning method provides us with a stash of Maine strawberries to enjoy long after the last one has disappeared from the markets. Which, sadly, will be right around the corner.

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