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Pick at the peak; For a fresh salad or summertime dessert, prime strawberry season is upon us

Ahh summer at last.

Nothing marks the beginning of summer like strawberry season.

In many places, those sweet crimson gems of summer are ripe for the picking.

Peak season varies depending on farm location and weather.

Picking is much easier when the season is at its peak. "You can pick approximately one quart of berries per 1 foot," said Marilyn Whittaker, a Michigan strawberry farmer.

>Baby Spinach and Strawberries with Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon water

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 package (5 ounces) baby spinach, cleaned and trimmed

1 cup sliced strawberries

2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the olive oil, vinegar, honey, water, mustard, salt and pepper. Cover and shake to combine. In a large bowl, combine the spinach and strawberries. Add the dressing and toss to coat. Sprinkle almonds on top of the salad greens and serve immediately.

Serves 8.

46 calories (59 percent from fat), 3g fat (no sat. fat), 5g carbohydrates, 1g protein, 75mg sodium, no cholesterol, 1g fiber.


>Classic Strawberry Shortcake

For strawberries:

1 pound ripe strawberries, hulled (about 4 cups)

2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste

For biscuits:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 -inch pieces

1 large egg

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream, plus more for brushing

1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

For whipped cream

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

To prepare strawberries: Put one-third of the berries in a medium bowl. Using a potato masher, crush them into a chunky puree. Slice the remaining berries 1/4 -inch thick and stir them into the mashed berries along with the sugar. Taste the berries, adding more sugar if necessary. Let the berries sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

To make the biscuits: Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large, heavy-duty baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, sift the flour, 1/3 cup of the sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in the salt. Using a pastry blender, a fork or your fingertips, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and heavy cream with a fork. Mix in the buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the cream mixture. Mix with the fork until the dough is evenly moistened and just comes together; it will still look a little shaggy. Gather the dough and gently knead it three or four times. If the dough seems dry and doesn't form a cohesive mass, work in more cream, 1 teaspoon at a time.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and roll it into a 3/4 -inch-thick disk. With a sharp 2 1/2 -inch biscuit cutter, press straight down to cut the dough into rounds and lift straight up to remove (don't twist the cutter or it will seal the sides of the biscuits and interfere with rising). Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheet. Gather the dough scraps, gently knead them together, reroll and cut out more biscuits until you have a total of 8.

Lightly brush the biscuit tops with cream and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake, rotating the baking sheet once, until the biscuits are lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Let the biscuits cool slightly while you whip the cream.

To whip the cream: Using a mixer and a large, chilled metal bowl, whip the heavy cream and sugar until soft peaks form. (Use immediately or refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve.)

To assemble: Using a serrated knife, split the warm biscuits in half horizontally and transfer the bottoms to dessert plates. Spoon about three-quarters of the macerated berries and their juices evenly over the biscuit bottoms. Top with a generous dollop of whipped cream and cover each with a biscuit top. Spoon more berries and cream over each shortcake and serve immediately.

Notes: The biscuits can be baked 10 to 12 hours ahead and reheated in a 350-degree oven before serving. The strawberries can be macerated up to 2 hours ahead. The cream can be whipped up to 2 hours ahead and refrigerated, covered. If necessary, lightly rewhip before using.

(Adapted from Fine Cooking magazine, June 2011).

473 calories (61 percent from fat), 32g fat (20g sat. fat), 44g carbohydrates, 5g protein, 248mg sodium, 124mg cholesterol, 2g fiber.


>Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

For crust:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) very cold unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup very cold vegetable shortening, diced

1/4 cup ice water

1/4 cup vodka

For filling:

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 3/4 -inch-long pieces (about 5 to 6 cups)

2 cups sliced strawberries

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, plus 1 tablespoon orange juice

Coarse salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 large egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash

Sugar for sprinkling, optional

To make the crust: In the bowl of a food processor, place the flour, sugar and salt; pulse to combine. Add the butter and shortening pieces. Process just until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of water and 2 tablespoons vodka, and pulse to combine. Continue adding vodka and water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together and is slightly tacky but sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into a 4-inch disc. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

To make the filling: Mix together rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, cornstarch, orange zest and juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

To finish the pie: On a floured surface, roll out one dough disc so it's 1/8 -inch thick and will fit in a 9-inch pie plate. Place the dough in the pan, pour in the filling; dot top with butter. Refrigerate while making top crust.

Roll remaining disk to 1/8 -inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut into at least 10 inch-wide strips using a fluted pastry cutter.

Lay 5 strips across pie. Fold back every other strip, and lay a horizontal strip across the center of the pie. Unfold folded strips, then fold back remaining strips. Lay another horizontal strip across pie. Repeat folding and unfolding strips to weave a lattice pattern. Repeat on remaining side.

Trim bottom and top crusts to a 1-inch overhang using kitchen shears and press together to seal edges. Fold edges under, and crimp as desired. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the pie from the refrigerator. Brush crust with egg wash, and sprinkle generously with sugar. Place a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch juices, and bake pie on middle rack for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and continue baking until filling is vigorously bubbling in center and bottom crust is golden, about 1 hour. (Tent loosely with foil after 1 hour if crust is browning too quickly.) Transfer pie to a wire rack, and let cool for at least 2 hours before serving.

Serves 8 (generously).

If making your own crust, chill the butter and shortening in the freezer to get it very cold. You can substitute store-bought ready-to-roll pie crust.

(Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, June 2011).

639 calories (48 percent from fat), 34g fat (15g sat. fat), 77g carbohydrates, 6g protein, 12mg sodium, 66mg cholesterol, 3g fiber.

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