Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Berry, Berry Fond of Strawberries

In 1992, I was home with a toddler and a newborn, and I became acquainted with a group of women who, like me, were relatively new to the neighborhood and new to this stage of life. All of us had come from careers outside the home, and some of us would eventually go back to them, but at the moment we were all in the same place--and we were looking for friends. In addition to sharing parenting, marriage, and decorating tips, we also shared recipes. And when we had the time, we shared lunch. 
One lunch entree in particular always comes to mind when I see strawberries, as I did this past weekend when I went strawberry picking here in New England. It was a chicken salad that contained the berries, and back then during that nascent period in my world of food exploration, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Fast forward almost twenty years--celebrity chefs have become our best friends and have opened up our eyes and palates to dishes we might never before have considered, food TV is omnipresent, and everyone to a woman professes to be a food maven. Now,  the idea of pairing strawberries with chicken salad sounds delightful to me, and not uncommon at all. What had once been innovative has become the norm, and creating delectable dishes by combining the savory with the sweet--think bacon in everything from cookies and doughnuts to chocolate truffles--makes for very interesting eating. Pastry chefs know that a pinch of salt added to cookie and cake batters helps balance the sweetness and enhance the other flavors. Adding the sweet, yet somewhat tart berries to a mayonnaise or yogurt-based chicken salad compliments the piquancy and cuts through the creaminess of the dressing. 

While many of those long-ago friendships grew stronger and flourished through the years, I can’t really say the same for the lasting power of the recipe my friend Kathy used. I think the startled reactions of the other moms in the group prompted her to toss it. (And I would like to take this time to send a "Mea Culpa" to Kathy for the harassment she had to endure.)  There are now many similar recipes on the Internet. Below is one of my favorites, and it has the addition of chopped pecans which contributes greatly to the textural component.
Sonoma Chicken Salad
(adapted from foodfrombooks.com)
about four to five bone-in, skin-on split chicken breasts
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing:
1 scant cup low-fat mayonnaise 
4 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
5 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
For the salad:
the cooked and cooled chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cups pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped 
2 cups firm strawberries, hulled and cut in half
three stalks celery, thinly sliced
To cook the chicken, earlier in the day or the night before, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and place the chicken breasts in a roasting pan. Brush the skin with a little bit of olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Roast the chicken for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced with a knife.  Allow the chicken to cool until you can handle it, remove the skin and peel the meat away from the bones, and shred into fairly large pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl and refrigerate for an hour or so, until well chilled.
In the meantime, prepare the dressing: mix together the mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, honey, poppy seeds, and salt and pepper. Refrigerate until you're ready to dress the salad. (Can be prepared up to two days ahead.)
Once the chicken pieces are chilled,  add the halved strawberries, pecans, and celery and mix. Stir in half of the dressing and toss until the salad is nicely coated. (You can add more dressing, if you wish, but I prefer a less-drenched salad.) Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.  This salad is best eaten the day it is prepared. Serves six approximately.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the "newfangled" sweet-and-savory combo, we can move on to something just a little more old-school. There is no need to fuss with the berries when making the recipe below.They are juicy and delicious as is, so just wash them, halve them, and scatter them around a big bowl of this very basic Vanilla Ice Cream. You could certainly use store-bought, but with a simple recipe such as this, why would you? (All you need to do is plan ahead.)  The other day, I gathered Albion and Seascape. The Albion is a hearty variety and the  berries are longer and not as sweet as the Seascape, which are smaller and rounder. By combining both varieties in your bowl, you will have all your strawberry bases covered. And as the ice cream melts and mingles with the berry juice at the bottom to create a pinkish berry "soup," the pressure to get up and bake a pie or crumble will melt as well.
Vanilla Ice Cream
(from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
3/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Pour one cup of the cream into a medium saucepan and add the sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the saucepan and add the pod to the pot. Warm over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove from heat and add the remaining cream, the half-and-half, and the vanilla extract. 
Chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, for at least eight hours or overnight.
When ready to churn, remove the vanilla pod, then freeze in your ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

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