Strawberry season got off to a late start this year, due to May’s cool weather. Maybe that’s why I pulled over with a screech at the first sighting of the big berry sign at Falkowski’s on Scuttlehole Road last week. Before I knew it, I was back in the car and in possession of four quarts of local strawberries. It was more than I needed for the next day or two, but after such a long wait I couldn’t resist.
While supermarket strawberries seem to have a shelf life as long as a Twinkie’s (those berries are bred and handled to withstand the long trip from California or Mexico to Long Island without spoiling), local berries are extremely perishable. Picked when ripe, they will begin to soften after a day or two on the countertop. You can refrigerate them, sure, but chilled berries lose some of their delightful juiciness, so I’d rather eat them quickly and at room temperature. I wash them as needed, since they soak up water like little sponges and begin to go bad soon thereafter. It’s also a good idea to transfer them to a paper towel-lined baking sheet, spreading them out in a single layer so they won’t crush each other, which will also lead to spoiling.
After making strawberry-avocado salsa, strawberry and spinach salad, and strawberry shortcakes, I still had a surplus. On a recent trip to Montauk, I had enjoyed the strawberry-mint lemonade at the pop-up collaboration between Red Hook Lobster and Sweet ‘Tauk Lemonade (the Connecticut-style lobster roll, with lobster meat bathed in warm butter, wasn’t bad either), so I decided to use the leftovers to make a similar drink at home.
Before I could do so, I had to make some simple syrup. Simple syrup is, simply, a mixture of 1 part water to 1 part sugar, heated to a boil to dissolve the sugar. It has myriad uses and comes in especially handy in the summertime for sweetening cold drinks. Keep some in the refrigerator to add to iced tea or coffee and you will never have to suffer undissolved sugar crystals at the bottom of your glass. Use it to make daquiries, lime rickeys, gin fizzes, and dozens of other more exotic concoctions.
I infused mine with mint, adding the leaves to the hot syrup and letting the mixture stand for 20 to 30 minutes before straining it. But there were other ways I could have gone:
*Basil Syrup: Substitute basil for mint. To make a raspberry-basil granita, combine raspberries and syrup in a food processor, freeze, and puree again when frozen.
*Vanilla Bean Syrup: Add a half of a split vanilla bean to the hot syrup and let stand to cool before removing the bean. Toss some sliced strawberries with this syrup for shortcakes or pancakes
*Ginger-Jalapeno Syrup: Add a 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, along with a half of a seeded and chopped jalapeno to the hot syrup. Let cool and strain. This one makes deliciously spicy margaritas.
*Black Peppercorn Syrup: Add a tablespoon of cracked black peppercorns to the hot syrup and strain when cooled. Try mixing this with rum and a splash of club soda. Or mix it with a little rum to moisten a sponge cake.
*Cinnamon Syrup: Add a cinnamon stick to the hot syrup and then remove when cooled. Cinnamon syrup is delicious on blueberries or peaches later in the summer.
My mint-infused syrup was so flavorful that I’ll continue to make it when strawberry season has passed in another week or two. It is the key to the best Mojito: Put a half-dozen fresh mint leaves in the bottom of a glass along with a slice of lime. With the back of a spoon, gently crush the leaves. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of syrup, ice, two ounces of rum, and a splash of club soda. A few of these will help me forget the strawberries I’m already missing.
Makes 8 drinks
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 ¼ cups fresh lemon juice
1 pint strawberries, stemmed and halved
3 cups cold water
12 ounces vodka (optional)
1. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer in a small saucepot. Stir so that sugar melts completely then remove from the heat. Stir in mint leaves and let cool to room temperature. Strain, discarding leaves.
2. Place the strawberries in a blender and process until smooth. Pour pureed strawberries in the sugar water and stir well. Add the lemon juice.
3. Combine the strawberry lemon syrup and the cold water in a large pitcher. Stir well. Fill tumblers with ice and then add vodka, if using, and lemonade.