Early daffodils are nodding, the irises are showing off their shaggy beards and the tulip magnolia’s fuschia blossoms are upturned and gently waving like a congregation of hands praising the spring skies. The first dusting of pollen is evident on windshields and already eliciting sneezes and sniffles.
Take your allergy medicine, then inhale deeply. There’s a subtle hint of sweetness in the air, and it smells a lot like strawberries.
In the Pee Dee, we are on the cusp of U-pick season, and visions of strawberry-this and strawberry-that are dancing in my head. It’s the only time of year I eat strawberries. If you’ve ever fallen victim to pretty grocery store packages of rosy fruit, you have experienced the big berry letdown. I decided many years ago I would not be fooled again. Give me strawberries fresh from South Carolina fields, bursting with juices and naturally sweet. Pick, rinse and eat – that’s my favorite strawberry recipe.
And that brings me to my second favorite recipe: Roasted Balsamic Strawberry Cobbler. Though a fairly recent addition to my lineup (which includes the usual suspects: strawberry shortcake, strawberries and cream, strawberry soup, strawberry salad), all it took was a single, savory-sweet bite for this cobbler to leap-frog its way to the No. 2 position. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. The darkly sweet and tangy flavor profile of a good balsamic vinegar could turn an old leather boot into a delicacy.
Like a majority of fabulous foods, production of balsamic vinegar happens in Italy, Modena and Reggio Emilia specifically. Its concentrated flavors develop through a process as complex as wine making. Whole grapes are pressed to create a “must,” which is reduced and fermented before being transferred to wooden barrels for aging, which takes 12 years at a minimum. The casks are tapped – smallest first –
then refilled with the vinegar from the next biggest cask. The newly added vinegar mingles with the dregs from the previous vinegar. With each successive transfer, the vinegar takes on a deeper viscosity. To grade Reggio Emilia’s vinegars, expert judges do a tasting and rank them by assigning a colored cap: red denotes a 12-year vintage (affinato); silver is 15 to 20 years (vecchio); gold is 20 to 25 years (extra vecchio). Modena balsamic is graded with two caps: a white cap indicating 12 years of aging or a gold cap for 20 to 25 years.
As a guarantee of the balsamic’s authentic origins, bottles get a European Union certification in the way of a D.O.P. stamp (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”). This means the only ingredient is grape must, and no sulphites have been added. Bottles may be sealed with wax and numbered. Modena bottles are shaped like bulbs, and Reggio Emilia’s are shaped like an upside-down tulip.
Any vinegar labeled “balsamic” that does not possess these characteristics is simply a wanna-be. That’s why you will notice a significant variation in prices on store shelves. Before you reach for the cheapest bottle, examine the bottle for signs of authenticity. In this instance, you get what you pay for.
Because cooking with high-quality balsamic can break down some of its flavor, I recommend that, in addition to the balsamic called for in the cobbler recipe, you add a drizzle to your plated cobbler, too. A touch of lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream is the perfecting touch. Now, go pick some strawberries, seek out an amazing balsamic and meet your new favorite fruit cobbler.
Roast Balsamic Strawberry Cobbler
5 cups sliced strawberries. (Cut lengthwise into three or four vertical slices – don’t slice them too thin, and don’t chop. You need the strawberries to have some thickness so they hold up to the roasting.)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.
3 tablespoons brown sugar.
1 teaspoon vanilla.
1 teaspoon cinnamon.
½ cup butter.
1 cup self-rising flour.
¾ cup granulated sugar.
½ cup milk (whole makes a richer batter).
Balsamic for drizzling.
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a bowl, toss sliced berries with balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Pour it, juice and all, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. (Make sure to spread the berries out so they aren’t on top of each other. That will make them steam rather than roast.)
Roast for 20 minutes and remove from the oven. Set aside. Adjust the oven heat to 350. In the oven, melt the butter in a baking dish – a 9-inch by 13-inch should work well. Remove the baking dish and, using a pastry brush, coat the sides and bottom of the baking dish with the melted butter.
In a large bowl, mix the batter ingredients and pour it over the melted butter. On top of the batter, add your roasted strawberries and juices, distributing evenly.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is crusty, brown and bubbly. Serve with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a dollop of freshly whipped cream.
Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at email@example.com.