One of the very best aspects of spring is getting to eat local, fresh strawberries. Asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, and ramps may arrive earlier and, therefore, generate a lot of excitement as a harbinger of nicer weather, but there’s no produce this time of the year that simply tastes as delicious as those little red berries. There is a huge discrepancy between the taste and texture of out-of-season strawberries and ones that are fresh from the farm. So much so, that I virtually refuse to eat strawberries when they are not straight from the farm or farmer’s market.
Unfortunately, strawberries arrive much later in the New York-area than they do out west, a fact that was exacerbated by the never-ending winter we had this year. While waiting for the local goods to sprout, however, Harry’s Berries of Oxnard, California provided some relief. For those that don’t know, Harry’s Berries produces some of the world’s greatest strawberries and ships them to high-end restaurants and a few select retailers. These gems are adored by chefs and served — by name — at restaurants as hallow as the French Laundry and Le Bernardin. And because they come from California, they start arriving in April instead of late May.
Once the strawberries start rolling in, I begin dreaming about what to make. One of my favorites is the strawberry gazpacho from the first Eleven Madison Park Cookbook. Not only is it one of the more delicious dishes listed, it is by far the easiest recipes from of either of the restaurant’s two books.
Because the dish is so simple, its execution really depends on the quality of the ingredients. It should be obvious that the freshest strawberries should be used, but I would also like to emphasize the importance of quality olive oil and vinegar.
I’ve discussed my obsession with olive oil before, so I won’t go into that here. I will say that the light, fruity Croatian variety I picked up at O & Co. worked perfectly with this dish. It’s also worth noting that I’m just as fanatical about my vinegar. The difference a high quality vinegar can make in a dish is enormous. I am particularly fond of products by the Californian company, “O”.
Ingredients in hand, the first step is to make the croutons. These are actually going to be blended into the gazpacho to give it body, so it’s important to use high-quality whole grain bread. I picked mine up at the local farmer’s market, cut it into cubes, and toasted them with garlic, thyme, and olive oil until they were well-browned and almost crunchy.
Once the croutons are out of the way, the dish is incredibly straightforward to complete. You simply halve the strawberries and diced the vegetables, add some croutons and the olive oil/vinegar, then just let it marinate on your counter for six hours to let all the flavors come together and do their thing.
While this is all happening, the strawberry confit can be made by tossing sliced strawberries with powdered sugar and olive oil, then putting them in low oven for a couple hours.
After the strawberry concoction has marinated for a few hours, it’s time to blend it all together. It’s important to do this well-ahead of serving time, so that the gazpacho can properly chill. After blending, it’s integral to strain through a choinois. Don’t skimp on this. If you don’t already have a chinois, get one. It is a great piece of equipment you must own if you are serious about cooking. It will make your sauces, soups, and other components silky smooth. And, no, a regular colander will not do.
Once I had the final product ready, it was time to season it with Tabasco. When making this dish, I feel that 5-6 drops of the hot sauce is plenty. Any more than that and you risk overshadowing the subtle complexity of the dish with overt heat.
I don’t eat pork, so I skipped the guanciale that the recipe cals for. But it seems unnecessary, anyway. This is delicious and beautiful without it. The combination of strawberries with the more savory components is unexpected and welcomed, and is sure to delight your guests.