Oh no, you’ve bought a punnet of tasteless strawberries and they are the hero of the dessert you are planning. Is there a trick to lift their flavour? Yes, Ta-da, the kitchen staple, lemon, to the rescue.
It works like this – you’ve got something that wants to be sweet – a tomato, a strawberry – but it’s natural sweetness just didn’t quite reach its peak, either because of weather conditions or because it was picked before it reached maturity. The fruit is bland, lacks perfume. Damn. How can you lift the flavour? Easy. Add a squirt or two of lemon. The acid immediately makes the fruit seem sweeter, simply by creating a contrast between sweet and sharp.
In New Zealand, strawberries are at their best during the months of October and November. Spring rains often ruin early crops, and once warmer summer weather kicks in they get a bit blowsy, then the plants dry up in the heat and bring an end to strawberry season.
I love them as they are, freshly picked, sweet and luscious. Cream and ice cream are traditional accompaniments for dessert, but yoghurt or crème fraiche can add a welcome sharp bite to blander fruit. An end to a spring meal can be as simple as a dish of strawberries, a bowl of yoghurt and one of brown sugar … swipe, dunk, gobble. Kids love it, of course, but adults aren’t far behind.
It’s hard to tell by looking at a strawberry whether it is going to deliver something worthwhile to the taste buds, but the nose can usually detect fragrance. If the strawberries don’t smell of much, they probably won’t have a lot of taste either. The best are picked fully ripe because they will never ripen to their full potential if picked under-ripe, even though they will continue to redden. Look for bright red strawberries red to the top, but give them the sniff test before deciding whether to buy them.
It goes without saying that you are better choosing New Zealand-grown strawberries over imports – not only do we need to keep our growers and pickers in jobs, but the fruit will be sweeter because it can be left to ripen on the plant (imports are invariably picked early so they can withstand the rigours of transportation).
When purchasing a punnet of strawberries, check the bottom of the punnet; juice in the bottom of the punnet is a tell-tale sign that the strawberries are past their best and have started to collapse. It doesn’t take much more warmth for the next step, fermentation (the strawberries will smell winey = yuk).
If strawberries are to be eaten within 12 or up to 24 hours, and are in good firm condition, they are best stored at room temperature, because refrigerating mutes their fragrance and flavour. If you need to store strawberries transfer them to a tray lined with paper towels in a single layer, not stacked as they come in punnets. This stops bruising, enables you to check on any strawberries which are going off, and keeps moisture off them which speeds decay. Drape loosely with more paper towels and store in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator, because it is not as cold there as the interior shelves of the fridge. Bring strawberries to room temperature before serving because they will improve in taste and texture.
To sweeten sliced or halved strawberries, add caster sugar (superfine granulated sugar). Although it takes a little longer to dissolve than icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar), it produces a more sparkling glaze. Use icing sugar for speed. Brown sugar gives a pleasant caramel flavour, and coconut sugar adds a nutty flavour.
Home-grown strawberries are a treat, and an easy way to get kids interested in gardening … once they see those seductive red berries forming on the plants they’ll be hooked, and they’ll learn patience too, because the redder the berry, the sweeter it will be. There’s still plenty of time to get some growing in pots. Don’t let the plants dry out – I often cover the soil with pea straw or mulch to help keep moisture in – and feed them regularly. Like tomatoes, strawberries are best picked on a dry day and will taste sweeter. They suck up water after a downpour which dilutes their sweetness.
If you have access to a load of strawberries in peak condition, slice thickly and dry them in a dehydrator. Not only will your house fill with a gorgeous sweet strawberry scent, but you’ll be left with intensely flavoured slightly chewy strawberries which will bring a lovely little ray of sunshine to a bowl of muesli in the winter months to come.
Other ways to lift the flavour Bland strawberries can be improved with a splash of something sharp – lemon juice is mentioned above – which because of the contrast, makes them taste sweeter. Balsamic vinegar adds an interesting sweet-sour tang but add it just before serving or it will quickly break down the strawberries and turn them an unappetizing brown. Likewise, with pomegranate syrup – add just a little, and just before serving. Orange juice is also good, making the strawberries taste fruitier. Then, there’s a range of liqueurs which all add their special characteristics – limoncello – it’s the lemon that works here – and orange-based spirits like Cointreau and Grand Marnier are superb. You probably won’t need to add any sugar to the strawberries if sloshing through one of these alcoholic drinks because they are all sweet enough.