An excess of strawberries – it must be summer

Ah, the height of a sunny summer, and it is, obviously, strawberry season. Strawberries are the one thing that my whole family can agree on – nobody complains. That, and so many shops doing their endless too-fa deals (two for the price of one) means we’re looking at strawberries for lunch and dinner, and breakfast and afternoon tea. I was going to do a definitive strawberry recipe, the single best thing you can do with them, something like that….but I think the real joy of them is that they are quick and best served relatively simply.

Wimbledon is synonymous with strawberries – I’ve never been, but I imagined that the price would be horrendous. A quick search on the web of truth and freedom revealed that Wimbledon sell approaching 100,000 strawberries every day. They are sold in punnets of at least ten, and cost in 2011 (last year), a surprisingly reasonable £2.50. I know that I’ve paid a lot more than that for far less agreeable food at very second-rate sporting events in the past. Wimbledon serve their strawberries plain as can be; just topped with cream and a little caster sugar on the side.

I tend to think that topping a strawberry means slicing the stalk, and sometimes the unripe white bit, straight off. Flush. Hulling brings to mind a more complex bit of knife work that involves inserting the point and twisting to remove the stalk. This leaves a little cone shaped indent. Either works just fine and they are interchangeable, depending on the ripeness of the fruit, except where you need the strawberries to stand upright – such as is the case with strawberry shortbread.

One quick cautionary tale on buying strawberries. I was walking past the fruit and veg stalls in Bury St Edmunds yesterday – not my usual shopping ground – and was inevitably excited by the vast quantities of beautiful fresh strawberries, cherries, peaches, and asparagus. All the stall holders were shouting out their prices. They were all doing deals “one-for one-fifty-two-fa-two-pound”, you know the routine. I wandered round and chose some fabulous looking ones from a charming ruddy faced gent dressed in tweed at the top towards the car park (I didn’t get his name). I chose a couple of punnets, handed him a couple of quid, he bagged them for me. The scoundrel must have swapped them for some almost completely rotten ones when he ducked down behind the stall. They were useless by the time I got them home, just forty minutes later. I was furious until tea time – the chickens ate well. The moral of this story is keep an eye on them, if they go out of sight, then check them before you walk off – or buy from your regular supplier.

So, in no particular order here is how my family loves to eat them:
1/ Chantilly Cream. Begin by stirring the seeds of one vanilla pod into a heaped tablespoon of caster sugar, this helps to properly disperse the seeds. Add just a little whipping cream – just to dissolve the sugar. Then pour in the rest of the 300ml pot and beat with a whisk until it is almost stiff. Serve in a bowl with plenty of freshly hulled strawberries. Not just delicious but cleverly avoids the problem of small children completely overdoing it when helping themselves to the sugar.

2/ Strawberry milkshake. My son’s favourite, and ideal for those slightly past their best strawberries – a too soft bruise can be simply removed. Combine a generous handful of vigorously trimmed strawberries, a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream and half a glass of whole milk. Blitz with a whiz stick or in a food processor. It should be thick but pourable, if it’s too thick add more milk, if too thin then you’ll know for next time.

3/ Strawberry shortcake. Thin, crisp, shortbread biscuits with cream and strawberries on top – what’s not to like. Make some biscuits with your favourite shortbread recipe. The biscuits should be cut out to be at least 2½ or even 3 inches round – bigger than most biscuits. They should also be quite thin. I like to get a little arty with this. I put a biscuit on a plate, spread the biscuit with a little strawberry jam, then a generous blob of stiffly whipped cream in the middle of the biscuit, smooth it out so it’s flat. Now top the strawberries and halve or quarter them vertically, then arrange them standing upright (pointy tips to the sky) on the cream topped biscuit – they should be as tightly packed as possible. Finally, at the last minute, dust with a little icing sugar shaken through a small sieve.

4/ Strawberry sauce. If you are facing a glut of strawberries, and can’t stomach a full jam making session, then a quick cook up with some sugar will solve your problems. Add strawberries, an equal quantity of caster sugar and a splash of water to a large pan. Heat until bubbling and the strawberries have dissolved into a mush, then ladle into spotlessly clean jars. Keep it in the fridge and use in a week or two. I discovered the versatility of this when a vast batch of strawberry jam didn’t set. I used it all as strawberry sauce; simply poured over cheesecakes and almond tarts, to enrich Eton Mess (see below), or simply spooned over a bowl of plain vanilla ice-cream (essentially home-made strawberry-ripple).

5/ Eton Mess. Legendarily invented when a batch of meringues were accidentally broken in the kitchen at the eponymous school. I don’t know about the authenticity of the origins, but I did ask a friend went there if they ever ate it? “Yes, I suppose we did, but only very occasionally,” he replied. Make or buy some meringues, and break them into chunks. Mix together with whipped cream and trimmed strawberries. If you have some home made strawberry sauce (see above) then mix this through to enrich the mess. It should look like a car crashed into an iceberg, everything clearly identifiable but not yet homogenised. It also should not be made in advance, the meringue will go soft and soft meringue is utterly pointless.

6/ Stawberry Pavlova. Not a recipe, just a reminder, really. It’s the tidy, accomplished version of Eton Mess.

7/ Strawberry and Feta Salad. There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t walk past a restaurant that wasn’t serving Watermelon and Feta Salad. This has a similar pleasant fruity-salty contrast. Nothing more than trimmed strawberries on a plate, artfully combined with some crumbled feta cheese. It’s a starter with a few herbs (mint and basil and dried oregano) throw in with it, and a little oil and balsamic dressing. Or, it’s a pudding and cheese course combined (hold back on the herbs – use just enough to make a tasty garnish) and just a little plain oil to make it glisten.

8/ Strawberry Jam. Surprisingly complicated to get it just right. I’ve found the one trick that really helps is to leave the strawberries trimmed and chopped overnight in the sugar – let them macerate. This seems to help them retain their shape when cooked. Beyond that, I can do no better than point you in the direction of Marguerite Patten’s The Basic Basics Jams, Preserves and Chutneys (published by Grub Street). The book is both encyclopaedic and authoritative.

9/ Breakfast. I’ll put them onto American pancakes with maple syrup, serve them atop yogurt and muesli, or my personal favourite is to make a little fruit salad, strawberries forming the mainstay. Add cubed or balled melons, grapes and maybe a little grapefruit or peeled apple. Orange juice makes a sauce.

10/ If you like to drink your strawberries, then put aside all those flavoured vodkas and strawberries soaked in Amaretto ideas. Just blitz some up and chill them. Then spoon into a glass and pour over some prosecco, stirring to fully dissolve. Every bit as good as the Bellinis in Harry’s Bar

11/ Chocolate Dipped Strawberries. As simple as it sounds. Melt your favourite dark chocolate in a double boiler (one with plenty of cocoa solids and a good crisp snap when you bite it). Then take strawberries at the very pinnacle of ripeness and holding onto the green stalky bit with pinched fingers dip it quickly into the chocolate. Place them carefully, so they don’t touch each other, onto tray covered with tin foil. When they’re all done put them into the fridge or a cool place to get the chocolate to reset. Serve after dinner at room temperature.