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The end of strawberry season – Fragole con Panna al’Aceto Balsamico

*Sniff* I can’t believe it’s here already. The end of the season has come and I completely missed them. I’m not talking about baseball. I don’t mean hockey. I’m not even referring to the World Cup. No, the season I am talking about is short, sweet and red. It is enticing, sometimes decadent, and very, very delicious.

The last of the farmers’ market strawberries have come and gone. Each year, as with asparagus, there is the fervor among the food set, especially those who try to eat as seasonally as possible, to hunt out and obtain, for as many weeks as is feasible, locally-grown, tangy-sweet, juicy strawberries.  I know that this might seem strange as you think, “What is this about? I see strawberries all the time. They are in my local grocery store year-round.” Those specimens you see in the plastic containers during the winter are a far cry from the ones to which I am referring. They could almost not even be the same fruit.

It is amazing to me that I have become such a convert, with all the zeal and ardor that implies.

In general, I don’t like strawberry-flavored things. The person who picks off the chocolate and vanilla from the Neapolitan ice cream, that would be me. Strawberry milkshakes, yuk, no thanks. Strawberry NESQUIK® – bleah. Twizzlers®, nope.  Fresh, seasonal strawberries, however, make my mouth water. I become obsessed this time of year, waiting, scoping out the markets, eager to catch the new crop. I cannot be tempted by the ones “as large as my head” (to quote one of my sisters) that one finds most months of the year.

So, what caused this transformation? I became a convert to the sweet possibilities of strawberries when I lived in Italy during my first year of graduate studies. There, at the market stalls past which I walked between my apartment and the school, these ruby red gems of spring appeared just in time to provide a distraction from final exams.

During that year, I had come to learn more about how to eat seasonally and was willing to be open to sampling this fruit again, having been turned off for years by bland, watery produce. Someone brought them to my abode for a snack during our studies. I whipped up a little fresh cream, dusted it with a touch of sugar, and delicately dipped a fresh, ripe strawberry into the bowl.

I bit into it and, WOW. Robust, full, fruity, flavor just exploded in my mouth. Juice dripped down the sides of my face. Strawberry taste, the kind that seems too artificial to be real, was everywhere, complemented by the rich, fluffy cream. It was as though a taste light-switch had gone off in my brain. I was in love, or something very close to it.

There is nothing like that first bite, not really. It’s like the first crush, the first time you succeed at doing something new, the first time you hold someone’s brand-new baby. It’s that special, especially, if you’ve spent a large part of your then-lifetime wishing you could enjoy something that others find so delicious but that you just can’t. Now, you are let into the secret society of strawberry-lovers.

At the same time, I am now part of the strawberry-obsessives club as well. I shun them out of season. Chocolate-dipped ones offered to me in February are turned down with a crinkle of my nose (a habit I have for things I find distasteful). No, my tastebuds know the premium article. They will not be led astray.

It has been many years since I was able to enjoy the Italian springtime fragole or fragolone (as the larger ones are called). The ones from the Greenmarket in New York bring back cherished memories of those warm days and even warmer friendships of the time. I developed this recipe to capture the English fondness for strawberries with cream along with a particularly Northern Italian use of balsamic vinegar. It is, of course, best when the berries are in peak season.

Fragole con Panna al’Aceto Balsamico*

Prep time: 15-20 minutes

Serving Size: 4-6 depending upon how greedy they are

Ingredients: 1 lb. Strawberries 1 cup Heavy Cream (or English double cream) 3 tsp Balsamic Vinegar 1 tsp Vanilla Extract 2 tsp Sugar

Assembly: Chill metal bowl in freezer for 10-15 minutes. If using beaters, also chill those for best results.

In the meantime, delicately rinse off strawberries and pat dry with paper towel. Green tops can be removed, depending upon how they are to be served, or left intact to allow for dipping. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Set aside.

Pour in heavy cream. By hand or with machine, whip cream into soft peaks. Add remaining 1 teaspoon sugar, vanilla extract and vinegar. Whip again. The cream will be a taupe-y sort of color. Serve berries with cream.

Kitchen Witch Tip:

It is perfectly permissible to use sugar substitute in place of sugar. You may want to adjust the amount you use downwards as the substitutes can sometimes be sweeter than the real thing.

*Mea culpa

I do my own cooking and food photography so I wanted to be sure that for sake of trust, I upheld full disclosure as to the prep for this recipe. So that y’all could see what this dish looks like, I confess that I had to cave and use organic strawberries I found at the grocery store. I stand by my point – they don’t match the taste of the locally-grown farmers’ market ones – but at least you can see what a nice presentation this dish will make if you can still get your hands on some of those.

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