HAVING RESISTED the temptation to begin a story about strawberries with Dr. William Butler's famous 16th-century quotation, one can only bemoan what has happened to them in the intervening 400 years. If Dr. Butler were writing about strawberries today, he might have remarked that you shouldn't fool with Mother Nature.
Most of the strawberries today are hybrids from California. This year they seem to be more tasteless, woody and hollow than usual. Strawberries sold from trucks parked along the road appear to be coming from Florida and are more reminiscent of how a strawberry should taste. Still, they don't quite make the grade -- that local berry, small crimson, succulent and warmed by the sun.
Cultivation of strawberries began in the 17th century. Until then, they had grown wild. There are references to strawberries in Homer, but Pliny dismissed them as not particularly exciting foods. Could it be that those he tasted were direct ancestors of those being raised in California?
How strawberries, mostly red -- but some obscure varieties are white, yellow, green and pink -- got their name is a matter of interesting conjecture. Perhaps from the manner in which they grow along the ground, the word is a variation on "stewed." Perhaps they take their name from the fact that gardeners customarily spread straw around berries to prevent mildew, or perhaps because the berries often have a strawlike texture.
At any rate, strawberries aren't berries at all. They aren't even a fruit. The belong to the rose family (Rosaceae), which also embraces the raspberry, apple, cherry, pear and plum.
Last July, for the first time in my life, I had my fill of summer strawberries. We picked them ourselves on a Long Island farm, and my eyes were bigger than my stomach. We filled basket after basket, staining our toes and fingers with berry juice -- so much so that the color wouldn't come off. Scouring powder had no effect. It took an hour to prepare them, partly because for each one I put in the bowl, I ate one.
Then I made a sauce to use over ice cream, the ingredients of which I only vaguely remember -- berries cooked with Grand Marnier, no sugar added, I think. It, too, had to be tasted often, of course.
By the time I had finished a lot of strawberry sauce on a little bit of ice cream, I was strawberried out. And there was still a three-quart bowl untouched. The non-pickers had to finish them!
Memories are short. When strawberries appeared in the market this season, I couldn't wait to buy the first box. The ones I had in March were not good. I blamed that having rushed the season.
April supermarket strawberries have been no better. Other sources in town have closer. But, if you are less impatient and are willing to wait for local berries, you are not likely to be disappointed.
And then, you will agree with Dr. Butler's quote:
"Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtles God never did." STRAWBERRY SORBET OR MOUSSE (12 servings) 3 pints strawberries, hulled and cleaned 2 cups sugar Juice of 3 lemons Juice of 3 oranges 1/2 cup orange liqueur
Combine strawberries with sugar and juices in blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add orange liqueur and pour into refrigerator icecube trays for freezing. Freeze until mixture is partially frozen. Transfer to a large bowl and beat until mushy. Return to trays and freeze until firm. To serve, leave in refrigerator about 45 minutes before serving.
TO MAKE SORBET INTO MOUSSE: After mixture is partially frozen, beat until mushy. Fold in one stiffly beaten egg white and 1/2 cup heavy cream, which has been whipped. Followed remaining directions. Or follow directions through first freezing and make several days ahead. Freeze until firm. Two hours before serving, allow to sit at room temperature 15 to 20 minutes. Then beat in blender until mushy and continue with directions. STRAWBERRIES WITH KIRSCH AND CREME FRAICHE (10 servings) 2 quarts strawberries 2/3 cup confectioners' sugar, or to taste 3 tablespoons kirschwasser (or other suitable liqueur such as orange liqueur) Creme Fraiche 1 pint heavy cream 2 tablespoon buttermilk
Wash and hull berries; place in bowl and sprinkle with sugar, then kirsch. The quantities really depend on the sweetness and flavor of the berries. Chill in the refrigerator for a maximum of 2 hours or the berries will become too soft.
To prepare creme fraiche, pour cream into a jar. Stir in buttermilk. Cover loosely. Leave in warm place, such as on top of the stove, until cream thickens like yogurt. (Do not use ultra-pasteurized cream when making creme fraiche. It may not thicken.) This can take as little as overnight, or as long as 2 days. It depends on the temperature of the room. Store in refrigerator, well covered, up to 2 weeks. If mixture separates, stir to make smooth.
The strawberries are most attractive when served from a large glass bowl or in footed goblets. Pass creme fraiche separately
Note: An alternative to creme fraiche is Devonshire cream, a thickly clotte cream so dear to the hearts of the English, not only on their strawberries but on their buns as well.
Until last year the only Americans who could enjoy the equivalent of cream from Devon were those with their own cows or a source of unpasteurized milk. Now Devonshire cream is being imported in sterilized containers for a frightful but worth-it price, at least for special occasions. It tastes remarkable like the clotted cream I enjoyed in England . . . with the first strawberries and, gluttony of gluttonies, with Bath buns. In Washington, St. Ivel Dovon creme can be purchased at Pasta Inc., Chez Wok and Sutton Place Gormet. STRAWBERRIES BAVARIAN (6 servings) 1 quart strawberries, hulled and washed 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 1/4 cup cold water 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons cherry-flavored liqueur 2 cups heavy cream, whipped Whole strawberries for garnish
Puree berries in blender or food processor. In a saucepan, soften gelatin in cold water. Add to puree with sugar. Heat and stir until gelatin is dissolved. Cool and add the cherry liqueur. Chill, stirring ocasionally, until mixture begins to thicken. Fold in whipped cream and spoon into 8-cup mold or serving bowl until mixture is set. To serve, unmold and top with whole berries. STRAWBERRY RHUBARB PIE (8 servings)
No story about strawberries would be complete without strawberry-rhubarb pie, as sure a sign of spring as cherry blossoms. Double crust 9-inch unbaked pie shell 2 cups 1-inch-long pieces fresh rhubarb 1 pint stawberries, washed, hulled and quartered, if large 1 to 1 1/4 cups sugar 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1tablespoon butter 2 eggs
In an unbaked 9-inch pie shell combine rhubarb and strawberries. Combine and mix the sugar, flour and nutmeg. Cut in the butter. Beat in the eggs. Pour mixture over fruit. Arrange a lattice crust on top of pie. Preheat over to 400 degrees.Place pie in over and immediately lower temperature to 350 degrees. Bake about 1 hour, until pastry is golden brown. STRAWBERRIES ROMANOFF (8 to 10 servings)
Certain rich desserts seem to have gone out of favor. I hope this isn't one of them! 1 pint top-quality vanilla ice cream 1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped Juice of 1 lemon 2 ounces orange liqueur 1 ounce light rum 2 pints strawberries, washed, hulled, sugared and chilled
Soften ice cream slightly and whip a little. Fold whipped cream into ice cream. Add lemon juice, orange liqueur, rum. Pour sauce over berries.
The sauce may be made up to 2 hours in advance and refrigerated. CHOCOLATE-COVERED STRAWBERRIES (4 or 5 servings)
They look so glamorous in the shops. They are so expensive. They must be so difficult to make. The reason chocolate-covered strawberries are expensive is that they are highly perishable and they require handwork. Each one must be dipped individually, and they must be eaten within 24 hours after making. But anyone can make them, including children. You only need 2 ingredients: the best quality chocolate you want to buy -- bittersweet or semi-sweet -- and ripe, sweet strawberries. 2 dozen medium-size strawberries with stems 1 pound good quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
Wash berries and dry well on paper towels. Melt chocolate over hot water to about 100 degrees. Stir occasionally. Remove from heat and cool to 85 to 90 degrees. Hold strawberry by the stem and swirl in the chocolate. For berries without stems, use a toothpick.
Place dipped fruit on baking sheet covered with waxed paper. Cover any parts of the fruit that were missed with a little chocolate on a spoon. Chill until chocolate hardens. STRAWBERRY SOUP (6 or 8 servings)
Fruit soups are found in Scandinavian, Russian and Hungarian cooking. Serve this either as a first course or as dessert. 1 quart ripe strawberries 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar Pinch salt 1 cup sour cream 1 cup dry red wine 4 cups cold water
Place all the ingredients but the water in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Combine strawberry puree with water in saucepan and heat slowly until hot. Serve warm, or chill and serve ice cold. PICKING YOUR OWN
For information on when and where to pick your own strawberries, call or write: Fairfax County Extension Service, 3945 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, Va. 22030, (703) 691-3456; or Montgomery County Extension Service, Horticulture Department, 600 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. 20760, (301) 948-6740.