The shady path to our family’s cottage on Madeline Island is overgrown with ferns and scattered with bright white strawberry flowers and tiny scarlet berries, hiding beneath. The scarlet color, intense as their taste, is the essence of summer. No strawberry shipped from California comes close.
This week our local strawberries are coming into the farmers markets. Precious and fleeting, their fragility is part of their charm. So act fast.
Our growers cultivate several different varieties of strawberries for flavor, not for shelf life or for their looks. They may vary in size and shape, so when shopping, simply look for small, plump berries with bright green caps attached. Avoid any soft, shriveled or moldy fruits. If the strawberries smell sweet, they will most likely taste sweet, too.
Do not remove those caps or rinse strawberries until ready to use. Store them in a basket or shallow dish lined with a paper towel or clean dish towel in the refrigerator, unwrapped. Plastic traps moisture and will speed decline. Because the cold dampens their flavor, allow them to come to room temperature before serving. Cutting the berries into quarters rather than slices helps keep the texture firm.
Strawberries are the perfect, classic addition for tart, crisp rhubarb, and pie is the inevitable result. This quintessential early summer dessert is heaven in the hands of a talented baker who can make a delicate pastry crust. But I need alternatives. The easy strawberry rhubarb compote is my go-to summer sweet. It’s terrific on ice cream, stirred into yogurt or topped with a dollop of whipped cream or rich mascarpone cheese. And it’s a snap to prepare. You can adjust the proportions of strawberries to rhubarb to your taste.
The only trick to making this compote is to cook the rhubarb gently so it retains some of its texture, then add the strawberries at the very last minute, as the pot comes off the stove. With mild ambient heat, the strawberries turn a darker, rich color, release a little juice, yet retain their shape. A little chopped fresh mint, or a grating of lemon or orange zest, really perks everything up. Be sure to use a light hand when adding the sugar or honey to the rhubarb after it’s cooked, sweetening slightly to taste. It’s the tang in rhubarb that heightens the strawberries’ sweetness.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.