I have always considered myself somewhat of a strawberry connoisseur. I have a preference for which varieties grown in specific geographic areas are the most flavorful based on their use such as Southwest Florida for fresh strawberry pie, Germany for jams, Spain for baked pies and for fresh eating, just about anywhere. At one point, I am sure those around me thought I would turn into a strawberry simply due to the consumption point I had reached.
I began to question my connoisseurship, though, once I met Lily. A purveyor of any and everything strawberry, Lily knew more about the intricate characteristics of strawberry varieties and their reactions to various cooking methods than anyone I had met. I was curious as to how her strawberry expertise was developed and sat with her one beautiful summer afternoon over, of course, a dish of juicy fresh strawberries.
Lily is her own very unique individual. She views almost all aspects in her world from an analytical viewpoint. This analytical approach flows through all aspects of her life from studies to relationships to food. And once Lily becomes engaged learning about a subject, she is all in. Her house becomes filled with books and magazines on the subject of the moment. She researches both electronically and through personal touch until she draws her own conclusions.
Her expertise in a variety of topics belies her age, but I was even more impressed with her philosophy concerning her approach. Lily believes one has an incredible opportunity to go through this world once so why waste it on things that are mediocre. Why settle for “this is good enough” when she knows there is the best of the best somewhere out there especially if it is going to enter her sphere of the universe. This is coupled with the belief each thing, whether that be a person or food or (and maybe especially) style, has their particular place to shine in the world. With this philosophy in hand, she has carved out her world where everything appears to fit and flow and shine.
It was her strawberry analysis that surprised me the most. While I would choose a softer berry for jam, Lily chose those with firmness. She told me jams are to show case the fruit so the firmness in berries allows large chunks of berries to remain firm and shine. Softer berries should be used in fresh pies because they become an incredible juicy gem within the filling. She held a reason for the type of strawberry in each dish she made but on one we definitely agreed. Freshly eaten in their simple glory is best for any type of strawberry.
Lily challenged me to contemplate the beauty and sweetness in simple dishes whether they contain strawberries or not. And to change my annual travel itinerary to match the strawberry seasons; Florida for jams, Spain for fresh pies and Germany for baked pies. Variety is the spice (or should I say strawberry) of life.
The recipe below allows the strawberries to shine in an unstructured manner by baking without a tart pan. The crust incorporates fresh basil, a subtle complement to any strawberry dish. The balsamic vinegar reduction as Flavor Tier 3 adds a final intensity to the sweetness. Using a ceramic or clay baking sheet under the pizza pan provides a flaky bottom crust.
2 2/3 c all purpose flour
2 T finely chopped fresh basil
1 c shortening
6 – 8 T cold water
4 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and cut in half (if berries are especially large, quarter)
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2T cornstarch
¼ c balsamic vinegar
Vanilla bean ice cream (optional)
Small fresh basil leaves
Heat oven to 425°. Place a ceramic or clay baking sheet in oven on top rack. Create a double layer 15” square of heavy duty foil by placing two 18” squares of heavy duty foil on top of each other and folding up sides. Place on a 12” pizza pan.
In small bowl, combine the cornstarch and sugar. In large bowl, place the strawberries and add the cornstarch mix. Toss to coat the berries. Set aside.
Put flour and basil into a bowl. Stir to evenly distribute the basil through the flour. Cut in shortening using two table knives or pastry blender. Sprinkle water, 1 tablespoon at a time, on the dough mixing with a fork until all of the flour is moistened and dough clears bowl sides. Divide dough in half. Place one half of dough on a floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll to a 12” circle. Transfer to the foil square by gently rolling around the rolling pin and unrolling onto the foil. Place second half of dough on the floured surface. Roll to a 12” circle.
Place the strawberries on dough that is on the foil. Spread to within 1” of the edges. Place the second dough circle on top of the strawberries. Fold the edges of the two dough layers up and inward two times, pressing with fingers each time. Using a fork crimp and seal edges of the dough together. (This will still most likely leak.) Turn up sides of the foil to create a “pan”, folding to the edges of the dough. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully cut eight 6” crossing lines on center of the top crust to form an eight point star. Turn each center point back over the crust. Brush the point with water and press into the top crust.
Place the pan on the ceramic sheet in oven. Bake 20 minutes and turn around. Bake an additional 15-20 minutes until browned on top and filling is bubbling. Remove pan from oven. When foil is cool enough to handle, fold under the pizza pan.
Place the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan. Heat over high heat until the vinegar is reduced in half. Drizzle 1 tablespoon over the strawberry tart. The tart is best served slightly warm.
Drizzle remaining balsamic reduction on serving plates. Place a slice of the tart on the plate. Add a small basil leaf along side the tart. While the tart is outstanding solo, serving with vanilla bean ice cream adds an incredible addition to the flavor of this dish.