(March 5, 2:14 p.m.) For the second consecutive year, the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, plans to reach out to the foodservice industry to encourage widespread use of strawberries in restaurants, schools and just about anywhere people gather for a meal or snack.
Generally, it doesn’t take much arm-twisting to persuade chefs and foodservice operators to add a few strawberry offerings to their menus.
At Hook Restaurant, Washington, D.C., chef Joshua Whigham likes to pair strawberries with fish, and he says the pastry chef makes a tasty strawberry rhubarb pie and a buttermilk panna cotta with strawberry compote.
“We order eight to 10 flats a week, and that sometimes doesn’t hold us over,” Whigham said.
He’s noticed that the berries tend to have a tart and acidic taste when they first come on the scene each year, but as the season progresses, they become sweeter.
Strawberries can be as good to drink as they are to eat, said Jeff Hollinger, general manager at San Francisco’s Absinthe Brasserie and Bar and author of “The Art of the Bar.”
Hollinger, who dabbles in cocktail development at the restaurant, said strawberries take especially well to a number of different herbs, including rosemary, basil and thyme.
“When you have things that have an herbal component to them, strawberries latch onto that,” he said. “They mingle really nicely.”
But don’t look for strawberry drinks or anything containing strawberries at the restaurant year-round.
“The only time we ever do anything with strawberries is when we can get them in season,” Hollinger said.
At Myth restaurant in San Francisco, executive chef Sean O’Brien lets the berries shine in his strawberry soup that he serves with lemon verbena teacake.
He runs the strawberries through a juicer, adds a bit of vinegar to enhance the flavor and serves it as a straightforward soup with the teacake, he said.
“I want to highlight the flavor,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to mask it.”
Strawberries are used in both hot and cold applications at Hook, Whigham said.
He uses the berries in a light sauté with caramelized onions and hazelnuts and a deglaze with vinegar, butter and parsley to make a sauce that is “vibrant and alive,” he said.
He grills wahoo fish to medium rare and serves it cut in half with a strawberry compote garnished with fresh lime zest and served with an arugula salad that is tossed with pine nuts and sweet onions.
“That screams spring,” he said.
Whigham said he loves to serve strawberries and limes together.
Another favorite at the restaurant is the panna cotta with a buttermilk base and a kind of pudding texture served with a strawberry compote and a sugar cookie garnish.
And strawberry and black pepper ice cream is a popular spring-summer dessert.
The restaurant makes a strawberry ice cream base, grinds in just the right amount of black pepper and spins the mixture in the ice cream machine for a treat Whigham describes as “creamy with little bit of spice.”
At Absinthe, one of Hollinger’s specialties is a drink he concocted while in culinary school — sangre de fresa or blood of the strawberry.
He made a dessert for a pastry class in which he soaked strawberries with some balsamic vinegar and a touch of sugar and served it with a layered napoleon, dusted with thyme and powdered sugar.
“I wanted to take that and turn it into cocktail,” he said, and reproduce it in a glass.
He starts with fresh strawberries and basil “and muddles that together in a pint glass” with a reduction he makes by cooking sugar into a caramel then adding warm balsamic vinegar and cooking it into a syrup.
Then he adds a bit of lime juice and cachaca — a Brazilian rum made from sugar cane — shakes it up, strains it and tops it off with soda water.
“People love it,” he says. “I wanted to use strawberries because they were in season, and I really wanted the fruit to shine through.”
It was the first time he used vinegar in a drink, and people were skeptical about the combination at first.
“But I have people coming back and asking for it every year when berry season rolls around,” he said.
Diners also enjoy his monk’s berry flip made by shaking together strawberry syrup, green chartreuse liqueur, gin and an egg white and straining the mixture into a champagne flute.
“It makes a beautiful pink cocktail,” he said. “You get a nice combination of the essence of the strawberries and the herbal qualities that come from chartreuse.”