The California strawberry season has begun, and sometimes will last as long as July or August. Those of you who have yet to get strawberries take hope; your time will come.
The best strawberries are always the local ones. Strawberries are very delicate and even the trip to the store is enough to necessitate the picking and packing of not-quite-ripe berries. Your best bet is to find a little family strawberry stand at the side of a semi-rural road, especially one that is attached to a piece of land where they grow the berries.
Of course, there is a downside to these very fresh berries: You have to process them immediately. And by "immediately" I don't mean the next day; you can end up with moldy strawberries in a depressingly short time. However, it's not so bad, because there are things you can do to keep your strawberry wonders intact. One is to use this marvelously versatile filling recipe in any manner you please.
You will need:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 cups fresh strawberries (1 pint)
1/2 cup water (with caution; see instructions below)
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
The first thing you do is to "hull" the strawberries, which means to remove the stem area. Storebought strawberries will often need the entire white top cut off but utterly fresh strawberries just need a tiny bit. I have a tendency to do a generous two cups because, well, strawberries are tasty.
In a handled saucepan, combine the sugar and cornstarch, and mix well. Add the two cups of berries and mash them.
Hmm. That seems really liquid (very fresh strawberries), so instead of the 1/2 cup water I will take the 1/2 cup measure, put the lemon juice in it, throw in some orange juice for fun, and barely top it off with water (scant 1/2 cup instead of full 1/2 cup.) Then you bring it to a simmer and stir until thickened, a half hour or more, while stirring so the strawberries don't stick to the pan and burn. Heck, get a book and read with one hand while stirring with the other.
Once the strawberries are stewed, stick in a lidded container and cool completely. This can last for week or two in the fridge due to its strong sugar concentration (the same thing that keeps honey from spoiling.)
If you'd like to make this into a tart, you will need:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp plain yogurt
About 18 pretty strawberries, halved
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center and stir in the yogurt and oil until the dough forms a ball. Flatten slightly; wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 400º F and grease a 9-inch tart pan. Roll the dough between two sheets of waxed paper into an 11-inch circle; press into tart pan. Pierce it with a fork and bake until golden, about 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
Spread the berry mixture into the crust and arrange halved berries on top. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.
Or you can do the same thing with a frozen pie crust; prepare the crust according to the single-crust pie directions.
Perhaps you'd like to have little tartlets instead. Buy some puff pastry; carefully thaw one sheet and cut into squares. Spoon a big dollop of strawberry filling into the center; fold the pastry over and seal.
If you like, you can brush the tops with egg white and sprinkle with that big granulated sugar whose name I don't know. Bake according to package directions for 12-15 minutes.
Serve immediately or wrap up in aluminum foil for a packed lunch.
What else can you do with the filling? Try spooning it over French Vanilla ice cream. Mmm.