PARIS -- While the first strawberries, along with asparagus, have long marked the official arrival of spring, I've not always thought of them beyond the obvious: strawberry shortcakes, strawberry ice cream, strawberry pie and so on. Sweet things that added to, rather than contrasted or complemented even, the already sugary berries.
Then one year, on a whim, I tossed strawberries instead of tomatoes -- also officially a fruit, which everyone seems to forget -- into a salad, and everything changed.
Suddenly strawberries weren't just the season's best dessert choice -- they were so much more: an appetizer or a side (see strawberry-feta salsa, below), a first-course salad (see strawberry-avocado salad with lemon-thyme vinaigrette, at right) or anything else I could dream up, from a blended and chilled soup with pepper and a swirl of creme fraiche to a sweet or savory pico de gallo that let the berries' sweetness lead the way.
We're lucky in France to have a range of strawberries to choose from -- oblong gariguettes, candylike mara de bois (my favorite) and the heart-shaped rest of the bunch, including darselect, cirafine, seascape, elsanta and cigaline -- along with a season that lasts a few months.
Until they're gone, I'll have strawberry-stained fingers along with the rest of the Frenchies. So if you don't mind, please pass the pepper. I've got a box of gariguettes to finish.
Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef. Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on www.cowgirlchef.com. On Twitter: @cowgirlchef
Strawberry-avocado salad with lemon-thyme vinaigrette
1 avocado, chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 big handfuls arugula/mache mix
A handful of pecans, toasted
Lemon-thyme vinaigrette, recipe at right
Fresh-cracked black pepper
Toss avocado, strawberries, arugula/mache mix and pecans in a big salad bowl along with some of the vinaigrette. Add pepper and serve.
Nutritional information per serving, with vinaigrette: 341 calories, 33 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, no cholesterol, 54 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 83 percent of calories from fat.
Nutritional information per serving, salad only: 151 calories, 13 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, no cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 69 percent of calories from fat.
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of sea salt and pepper
6 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil
Put everything but the oil in a jam jar and give it a shake. Let rest for about 10 minutes. Add oil, shake again and taste for seasonings.
Nutritional information per serving, based on 4: 190 calories, 20 grams fat, 3 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 95 percent of calories from fat.
1 pint strawberries, hulled and cut into fourths
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
About 4 ounces feta, crumbled
About 10 mint leaves, torn into small pieces
Fresh-cracked black pepper
In a small bowl, gently toss strawberries with vinegar; let marinate for at least 15 minutes before serving. Crumble feta on top, add mint and pepper, and serve.
Cowgirl tip: You can also serve this over a handful of arugula as a first-course salad.
Nutritional information per serving: 102 calories, 6 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 318 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 55 percent of calories from fat.