Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Italian Strawberries for Sarah
The first time I traveled without my parents, I had just turned 15. A school friend was spending the summer with her father in Sheffield, England, and I was allowed to take the train from Leuchars by myself. I had to change trains once, in York I think, so I was quite focused the whole time and felt very adult indeed.
My friend’s father owned an Italian restaurant, which he lived above, and we ate most of our meals there. The waiters treated us like royalty, and we drank ourselves sick on the elegant glass bottles of acqua frizzante and lime wedges they brought us all day every day.
But I did try more adventurous fare too. Creamy avocados stuffed with plump baby shrimp and mustard vinaigrette became a fast favorite. Though nothing approached my newfound obsession with prosciutto and honeydew melon. This was grown-up food – salty and savory, paper-thin ham and floral, juicy melon on the same plate. I ordered it breakfast, lunch, and dinner, spoiled girl that I was.
In the years since, I’ve learned that I love prosciutto paired with other fruits too. Figs are a particular favorite, but, in the late spring, when figs are rather thin on the ground in Manhattan, I make myself special breakfast crostini with strawberries and the year’s first basil. Olive oil, aged balsamic, sea salt, and cracked black pepper transform the toasts into a true feast.
My cousin Sarah, who’s now 14 and already has a far worldlier palate than I did at that age – she’s made a mean vinaigrette since she was 9 – is doing her 8th grade research project on Italian Cuisine. I’m beyond impressed, though I always am by Sarah and her brother and sisters. I did my 8th grade project on Marilyn Monroe (what my poor mother must have thought...). Though that might have been because my Uncle Brad, of whom I was, and am, exceedingly proud, did one of her most famous interviews, and this way I got to interview him!
When Sarah asked if she could interview me, I knew she'd love to try the age old Italian preparation for fresh strawberries (involving brief maceration with balsamic vinegar and a little sugar), which has long been a standard in our house. I like to add fresh mint, basil, or rosemary when I’ve got them – all 3 lend a subtle vein of spice and earth to the fragrant syrup that forms as the strawberries meld with the aged vinegar. The recipe exemplifies what I love about Italian (and Mediterranean) food. The quality of the ingredients is highlighted rather than the complex (sometimes distancing) skills of the chef.
And for when she’s feeling adventurous, here’s the recipe for my breakfast crostini – directly descended from those delicious plates of prosciutto and melon I feasted on in Sheffield when I was her age. Special thanks to my cousin (and Sarah's mom) Celia for the stunning 2nd photo!
Prosciutto & Strawberry Crostini
Serves 2 for breakfast
2 thick slices of good bread
extra virgin olive oil
6 fresh strawberries, rinsed and leaves trimmed
4 thin slices of prosciutto
fresh basil leaves
aged, thick balsamic vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
Grill or toast the bread. While still hot, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Arrange the strawberries and prosciutto on the toasts and dot with the fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with the syrupy balsamic and season generously with black pepper and more sea salt. Serve immediately.
Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar
1 lb fresh strawberries
2 tsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
fresh mint, basil, or rosemary
trim the stems and leaves from the berries, half any that are large, and place in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on the sugar and the vinegar. Toss to combine, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. Remove from the fridge and toss in a few torn mint or basil, or a tiny bit of minced rosemary. Serve immediately.