Whenever I smell good strawberries — flavorful, juicy ones– they demand my attention. It’s so easy to pass their lackluster cousins in the supermarket, but the ones from Knauss Berry Farm demand a full stop. Their aroma is heady with memories of childhood visits to the Farm in Tata’s Chevy Nova. My grandparents and aunt would load us up with chewy cinnamon rolls and strawberry milkshakes on our weekend jaunts to the Farm, thus instilling in me the invaluable lesson that sometimes you have to make a special trip for really good food. Or rather, that sometimes, the day is just for pleasure. And strawberries, throughout the ages, have been all about pleasure. They lend themselves perfectly to the life of leisure – to brunches, weekend trips to the Redlands, picnics, and desserts.
My new favorite combination is strawberries and balsamic vinegar, which is nothing new under the sun. However, just a whiff of these intense fragrances opens up my appetite and clears my mind of whatever annoyances have accumulated throughout the day.
Last season on Top Chef, a Bombay promoter had the chefs create dishes to pair with the various gin cocktails. I recreated some of them, and my favorite was the Sapphire Strawberry and Aged Balsamic Rickey. It was piquant and sweet, but with plenty of acidity, which I am partial to. By the way, Casey paired the drink with French toast which seems like a winning combination.
With Mardi Gras approaching, here is a recipe for New Orleans pain perdu. This is French toast with some New Orleans flavor (French bread, liquor, custard sauce). It’s a second life for those loaves of crusty, old bread (pain perdu= “lost bread”) that seem beyond redemption. I’ve made it with challah and sourdough French bread, and devoured the results. The key is using crusty loaf bread and cutting it in thick slices. However, don’t cut the slices so thick that the middle is left soggy. That happened to me the first time I made this recipe, so I just stuck the pain perdu in the oven for a few minutes. Of course strawberries and/or the above drink are a perfect match.
This recipe is from A Real American Breakfast: The Best Meal of the Day, Any Time of Day by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison. This is one of those cookbooks that I could sit and read cover to cover, for various reasons. I could eat breakfast all day; in addition the authors give every recipe a story, a historical and cultural grounding, complete with sample menus and cookbook quotes from the past. They include endless technique tips and recipe variations such as New Orleans Praline Pain Perdu, Poppyseed French Toast, Eggnog French Toast and Ice Cream French Toast.
New Orleans Pain Perdu
From A Real American Breakfast by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison
4 large eggs
¾ cup whole milk
½ cup (heavy) whipping cream or half-and-half
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey, cognac, brandy or bourbon
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
8 French bread slices cut about 1 inch thick on the diagonal
Sliced strawberries, other berries, or orange or tangerine slices
Real maple syrup, optional
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter a baking sheet.
Whisk the eggs, milk, cream, whiskey, sugar, vanilla, and salt together in a shallow dish.
Dunk the bread slices in to the egg mixture and soak them for at least 10 minutes, turning if needed to coat evenly, until saturated but short of falling apart.
Warm 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil together on a griddle or in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Briefly cook the French toast in batches until golden brown and lightly crisp, turning once. Place first slices on baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven. Continue cooking the remaining slices, adding more butter and oil as needed. When all of the French toast is ready, dust with confectioners’ sugar sprinkled through a strainer. Serve immediately with berries and maple syrup if desired.
The life of leisure in Miami in January is all about enjoying these cool, windy days. What better way to enjoy it than a picnic at David Kennedy Park? I made a Ricotta Orange Pound Cake with Strawberries (recipe from Giada De Laurentiis) for such a picnic. It’s a brick for sure, but the ricotta adds moisture and texture. The fragrant strawberries marry beautifully with it, but I could surely eat this cake by itself. As it turns out, the day was too gray and drizzly for the park, so we enjoyed our picnic indoors. Some friends, some wine, and some pound cake weighing on me like the hearty, lazy Sunday that this is…and I am ready for the week.