First in a series of stories savoring the region’s seasonal bounty.
Strawberry ice cream, strawberry caramel crème brûlée, strawberry preserves on parsnip pudding. Oh, and strawberry shortcake, with angel food cake, strawberry puree, and strawberry ice cream.
The pièce de résistance: fresh local strawberries — the long-awaited sign that summer has arrived and a harbinger of the festive harvest to come.
These are just some of the strawberry-themed desserts featured this month at 51 Lincoln, a small Newton restaurant run by chef Jeffrey P. Fournier, one of 19 restaurants participating in this year’s Mass Farmers Markets Strawberry Dessert Festival.
Strawberries were an easy choice for the festival, said Alison Dagger, outreach and volunteer manager for Mass Farmers Markets. It’s no surprise that they easily outrank competing seasonal offerings like peas, onions, and cabbage.
“There's something about that little red fruit,” she said. “Everybody gets excited about it.”
Strawberries are singularly seductive, Dagger said. They appear in early June, one of the first fruits in New England, and for a little more than a month are among the most popular offerings at farmers markets. Arrive late and you’ll miss out.
With just the right amount of moisture and sun, this year’s crop has been called ideal.
Fournier himself has enjoyed a long history with strawberries, a fruit he calls “the perfect blend of sweetness and acidity.”
French-Armenians living in Amesbury, his family supplemented their income by harvesting fruits and vegetables from their own backyard. On weekends, before he and his brother could play, they would complete their weekly chores: weeding the garden, watering the plants, tending to the budding fruits.
It felt like work, Fournier said, until his parents offered him a small stretch of land in the garden: his own strawberry patch.
At 10 years old, this was a chance to prove his worth, to create something — perhaps for the first time — purely his own.
In the summers, he would collect his bounty and sell strawberries by the pint on the side of the road.
There really was something about strawberries, he said, the way their redness shone in the sun, the way the runners grew out of the fruit and into a new plant.
A chef for 25 years, Fournier delights in strawberry creations both savory and sugary. A summer staple is his smoked strawberry vinaigrette.
He rattles off the recipe: smoke strawberries for about a dozen minutes. Add shallot, sherry vinegar, and, as a base, canola oil. Puree. Perfect on a spinach salad with bleu cheese.
A sugary strawberry favorite: his strawberry sundae, served in a tall parfait glass and finished with whipped cream and candied lemon peel.
“Whatever you do, you want to complement the flavors in the strawberry,” he said. “Think of a strawberry shortcake. The acidity of the strawberry is offset by the creaminess of the whipped cream. The fat of the cream coats your tongue, which changes and enhances the sweetness of the strawberry.”
If strawberries are less ripe, he says, he’ll add honey or molasses.
“It’s all about reacting to the fruit,” he said.
Other restaurants participating in the festival have brought out their own strawberry creations to the table.
Armsby Abbey in Worcester has a strawberry rhubarb crisp with fresh strawberries and rhubarb, lemon-thyme brown butter crumble, and pink peppercorn whipped cream. Bistro 5 in Medford, a strawberry shortcake with white chocolate mousse, olive oil cake, and lemongrass.
Fournier is not upset that the strawberry season comes and goes so quickly. He said it’s a reminder that all food is about living in the moment, enjoying the flavors that arrive and depart with the seasons. He’s already busy planning ahead for broccoli and tomatoes, which come soon after strawberries.
On a garden atop his restaurant, peppers and tomatoes are in the beginning stages of growth. Berries can’t grow in the garden, he said. It’s too hot up there.
Not to worry. He and his wife just bought their first home in Newton, and after they complete renovations, the first thing they will do is plant a garden. Who knows, it might even include a strawberry patch.
“I have a 5-month-old son now,” he said. “I want him one day to have a patch of his own.”