Strawberry Season

The ripest, reddest, juiciest strawberries are in the markets now, and the season is short if you like your fruit at the peak of perfection May into June gives us the pick of the crop, even though growers say the season lasts from February to October This is the time to have fun with strawberries, to smother them in whipped cream, marinate them with citrus juices, pure'e them in pale pink soups, toss them into shrimp salads, show them off in shortcakes and souffl'es, and use the largest of the heart-shaped orbs for garnishes Of course, you don't need a recipe when serving strawberries -- just float tart, sugared slices in fresh cream or roll whole berries in confectioners' or brown sugar But if you really want to dress them up, here are some elegant combinations, sweet and savory Mussels with Black Pepper Topping 1 pint strawberries 2 tbsp. chopped onion 2 tbsp. white vinegar 2 tbsp. bacon grease 1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper 1 tbsp. honey 6 fresh mussels per person (and a few extra) Combine all ingredients except mussels. Stir well and let stand 15 minutes before using as a topping for mussels. Figure six fresh, tightly closed mussels per person, and add extras in case a few don't open. Clean, then drop in boiling water. Cover and steam about 2 minutes, just long enough to open shells. Discard any that don't open.

Remove black beards; separate and discard one half each shell. Lay other halves, with meat attached, on a cookie sheet. Fill with the topping and bake at 500 degrees F. 8 to 10 minutes. Or broil until lightly charred, about 4 to 6 minutes. Salad Elona Alternate circles of thinly sliced, peeled cucumber with circles of hulled and halved large strawberries. Season with salt, plenty of black pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Sprinkle with 2 or 3 tablespoons of dry white wine vinegar. Serve with cold salmon, trout, or smoked turkey or chicken. Smoked Chicken and Avocado with Strawberry Sauce 1 cup hulled strawberries 1/4 cup olive and sunflower oil Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon sugar to taste 3 ripe avocados 1 lemon 2 breasts smoked chicken, sliced Toasted slivered almonds Pur'ee strawberries in blender or processor. With machine going, slowly add oils mixed together, stopping to taste when balance of oil suits you. Add salt and pepper, taste, then add sugar to bring out flavor.

Halve, peel avocados, rub cut sides with lemon. With cut side down, slice each half into about 12 slices. With spatula, place on a platter and fan out.

Place sliced chicken between avocado slices. Spoon strawberry sauce around slices and scatter a few toasted almonds on top. Serve at room temperature. Strawberry and Kiwi Salad 1 quart strawberries 2 kiwi fruit, peeled Juice of 1/2 lemon 2 or 3 sprigs fresh mint Freshly ground black pepper In a glass bowl place crushed ice half way up, then add strawberries. Cut kiwi fruit in thick slices and place decoratively among berries. Sprinkle with lemon juice and strawberry liquid; tuck in mint sprigs. Add a sprinkle of black pepper to bring out the flavor. Strawberry Cheese Torte 2 cups graham cracker crumbs 1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted 2 pint baskets fresh strawberries, stemmed 1/2 cup hot water 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 2 tbsp. lemon juice 2 tsp. grated lemon peel 2/3 cup sugar 2 8-oz. packages cream cheese in chunks, softened 1/2 cup sour cream 1 cup ice cubes Sweetened whipped cream In small bowl combine graham cracker crumbs and butter; toss to mix thoroughly. Pat half of crumb mixture into bottom of oiled 9-by-3-inch springform pan. Chill; set aside remaining crumb mixture. Stem and slice berries, reserving 12 whole berries for garnish.

In blender combine water, gelatin, lemon juice, peel. Blend until frothy. Scrape sides. Add 2 cups sliced berries and sugar. Blend until smooth. Add cheese, sour cream, and ice; blend.

Chill about 15 minutes, till slightly thick. Spoon half of cheese mixture into pan. Layer remaining crumb mixture and sliced berries over cheese mixture. Top with remaining cheese mixture; smooth top. Chill till firm. To serve, cut into wedges. Top with whipped cream and garnish with whole berries. Makes 10 to 12 servings. Strawberry Coconut Sherbet 2 pints fresh strawberries 1 tbsp. lemon juice 2/3 cup water 1 tbsp. light corn syrup 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 egg whites 1/4 tsp. salt 1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped 1/2 cup flaked coconut 1 8 1/4-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained In blender, pur'ee enough berries (about 1 1/2 pints) to make 2 1/2 cups. Add lemon juice; set aside in refrigerator. In medium saucepan, combine and bring to boil water, light corn syrup, and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil, without stirring, to soft-ball stage, 238 degrees on candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, beat egg whites with salt until stiff. Slowly pour hot syrup over beaten egg whites, beating at high speed until thick and shiny, about 5 minutes.

On low speed, beat in strawberry pur'ee, coconut, pineapple, and whipped cream. Pour into shallow pan and freeze until slushy, about 1 hour. Beat smooth; then return to freezer, covered with plastic wrap, and freeze firm.

Serve scoops in dessert dishes, garnished with more sliced berries. For special occasions, serve in coconut shell. Or serve with fresh cubed pineapple and strawberry ``salad,'' presented in hollowed out pineapple shell. Makes about 5 cups. Strawberry Shortbread Mousse Crust 1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar 1 cup sifted flour Filling 2 pints fresh strawberries 2 tbsp. lemon juice 3/4 cup sugar 2 packs unflavored gelatin 1/4 cup water 2 cups whipping cream, whipped To prepare crust: Cream butter and sugar. With fork, gradually stir in flour. Pat dough into 8 1/2- or 9-inch springform pan. Prick with fork. Bake in preheated 350 degree F. oven 10 minutes. Lower heat to 300 degrees F. and bake 20-25 minutes longer, or until golden. Cool. To prepare filling: Pur'ee enough berries (about 1 1/2 pints) in blender to make 2 cups. Save extra berries for garnish. Blend lemon juice and sugar into pur'ee. Soften gelatin in water; warm over low heat to dissolve. Stir into berry pur'ee; chill till mixture begins to thicken. Fold in whipped cream.

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