FOR THOSE who take the time to pick wild strawberries, the rewards are therefold. They develop a mild, meditative patience; they bask in the early summer sun; and they enjoy the special tart tingle of fresh wild strawberries on the tongue.
In woodlands, orchards, leveled fields, even in lucky household yards, these tender little plants poke through. Smaller but similar in appearance to the garden-cultivated fruit, they show a downy set of three-part leaves standing straight up on stalks from the ground. As spring gets underway, they raise up a flower stalk. The white, five-petaled flower shows the strawberry's family resemblance to raspberries and roses.
Return to the scene a month later, and the plant holds mature seeds, embedded in a red fruit nugget.
Several tasty varieties of wild strawberry occur in the Western Hemisphere, and lucky for us some cultivated strawberries seem to be going wild too. The only deceptive lookalike is the closely related snakeberry, duchesnea indica . One bite of this low-lying berry, also bright red, would tell the trained palate it's not a strawberry. It's spongey and tasteless, not good to eat.
But children might not notice the difference, and large quantities of snakeberries could harm them. Look for yellow flowers, not white, and a berry with seeds that stick out rather than in. Snakeberry plants hold their berries all summer -- seems that not even the snakes like to eat them -- so beware of any strawberry lookalike you find in mid-to-late summer, after wild strawberries are long gone.
Seasoned wild strawberry pickers will tell you to do your cleaning as you pick. Separate stray grass and spoiled berries, even pick off the cap as you gather them. The berries are small, and they'll soften up as they sit, making it almost impossible to pick through them once you're back home in the kitchen.
Wild strawberries can fill in for cultivated strawberries in a recipe anytime, and you'll find that their pungent flavor more than makes up for their diminutive size. And, by the same token, any of the recipes below can be followed using cultivated strawberries. But you will have missed out on the best part of wild strawberries: those peaceful sunny moments spent picking berries as summer comes along. COLD STRAWBERRY SOUP (2 to 4 servings) 1 pint strawberries (cut into small pieces if large berries) Juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup sugar 1 cup yogurt 1 egg
Sprinkle strawberries with lemon and sugar and let stand 1 hour. Combine in a blender the soaked berries, yogurt and egg. Blend until thoroughly combined. Serve cold, perhaps embellished with a sprig of mint. STRAWBERRY OATMEAL COOKIES (Makes 1 1/2 dozen) 1 cup strawberries 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 cup soft butter 1/4 cup honey 1/2 cup unbleached white flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon cloves 2 eggs 2 cups oatmeal
Cut larger strawberries into peasized pieces, sprinkle with sugar, and set aside. Cream together soft better and honey. Combine flour, salt, baking powder and spices; sift into butter and honey. Beat together to a silky consistency. Beat in eggs, and continue beating until fluffy. Fold oatmeal and strawberries into mixture. Drop on greased cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. WILD STRAWBERRY SOUFFLE (4 servings) Confectioners' sugar 1 pint strawberries 1/4 cup granulated sugar 3 tablespoons flour 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup cottage cheese 1/4 cup milk 4 eggs, separated Dash each of salt and cream of tartar Fresh strawberries, for garnish Hot fruit sauce (recipe follows)
Prepare souffle dish by buttering and dusting with confectioners' sugar. Cover strawberries with 1/4 cup sugar and set aside. Make a roux by stirring flour into melted better over low heat. Continue stirring until the roux begins to bubble slightly. Then blend in cottage cheese and milk, stirring constantly over medium-low heat until mixture becomes smooth and thickens. Set aside to cool slightly, then stir in yolks of eggs and add dash of salt. Mash strawberries with fork against side of bowl, leaving some whole pieces but producing a sweet syrup. Strain syrup off berries, keeping both parts. Whip egg whites to soft peaks, adding cream of tartar as you begin. Stir strained berries (saving their syrup for the hot fruit sauce) into the cottage cheese mixture. Then introduce a spoonful of whipped egg whites, and another, before folding mixture into bowl with egg whites. Gently fold entire contents into prepared souffle dish. Bake souffle at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately, topped with fresh sliced strawberries and hot fruit sauce. HOT FRUIT SAUCE Leftover syrup, strained from berries 2/3 cup powdered sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Combine thoroughly and stir constantly over medium heat until thickened and clear, about 10 minutes. Sauce will turn a bright strawberry red when ready. COOL SUMMER TEA
Gather equal amounts of the leaves of wild strawberry, mint and wood sorrel ("sourgrass"). For each 8-ounce glass of iced tea, gather approximately 1/4 cup of leaves. Bruise fresh leaves just before covering with boiling water. Steep 15 minutes. Strain out leaves. Cool, then refrigerate for 1 or 2 hours. Serve iced, with or without sweetening. No calories, and refreshingly thirst-quenching on a hot summer day.