Fragole al Vino con Ricotta e Pepe
Strawberries in Chianti with Black Pepper Ricotta Cream
by Gina DePalma
It is getting tough out there.
Strawberry season here in New York is almost ready to begin its full swing, and a few select farmers have begun harvesting and selling the first baskets of berries at the various greenmarkets here in the city.
Competition among the customers has been tough. I have seen some verbal spars and near fist fights over those first few baskets. Let’s not even talk about the competition among pastry chefs for flats of berries to pepper their early summer menus. The strawberry barometer has become a way for me to measure my many years in the restaurant business here in New York. As my beloved city has become the preeminent dining hot spot in the United States, and as the number of high-quality restaurants has exploded in the past decade, it has gotten pretty tough to negotiate a flat of strawberries. You have to get there early. You sometimes have to cry (at least I do). And you have to be prepared to defend your turf.
I kind of miss the days when there were only twelve of us competing for strawberries….
Thankfully, I think I have amassed enough emotional clout and a considerable array of survival skills to procure Babbo’s share of strawberry wealth, and now is the time for me to feature fresh strawberries in as many formats as I possibly can. Strawberries have a particular allure. I am always reminded of the bittersweet story from Greek mythology about their origin. It is said that the goddess Venus wept uncontrollably when her lover Adonis died, and her tears fell to earth and formed sweet, heart-shaped strawberries. Broken hearts aside, strawberries are nutritious as well as delicious, packed with Vitamin C, folic acid, fiber and potassium.
Strawberries are widely cultivated throughout Italy, including the southern regions of Basilicata, Campania and Sicily, and in Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte and the Veneto in the North. In Lazio, around the lake known as Lago di Nemi, it is the wild strawberry that is revered. Nestled in the Alban hills surrounding Rome, the town of Nemi holds its annual “Sagra delle Fragola,” a festival which lasts almost two months and celebrates the harvest of their tiny “fragolini di bosco,” fragrant, wild strawberries that grow in the woods around the volcanic lake. Wild strawberries are also found in Emilia-Romagna, outside of the city of Ferrara, providing the perfect complement to the sublime Aceto Balsamico, or balsamic vinegar from the neighboring city of Modena.
Here in America, we have a strawberry that is truly worthy of high praise, the Tri-Star. These fragrant berries are classified as a “day-neutral” strain, meaning that they grow unaffected by the length of the day, producing up to four full crops per season. Tri-Stars have it all—they are small, sweet, juicy, bursting with flavor, and red, red, red, all the way through. Thank goodness for the local farmers of upstate New York and New Jersey, who provide me with a steady supply of these gems throughout the summer.
My absolute favorite was to enjoy a fresh strawberry is known as “Fragole al Vino,” or Strawberries in Wine. Nothing could be simpler or more delicious. Simply toss some fresh, sliced strawberries with sugar and a few splashes of fruity, young red wine and let them soak for a bit. Then spoon this berry goodness over mascarpone, ice cream or fresh ricotta. Don’t forget to slurp up the juices!
Serves 4 to 6
The sweet ricotta cream, spiked with crushed black peppercorns is a recipe that I first contributed to “The Babbo Cookbook,” and it is an especially good partner for the wine-infused berries. The sweetness of the strawberries, the zing of the black pepper and full, fruity effect of a good Chianti come together in perfect unison. Be sure to crack whole peppercorns for this recipe; pepper becomes spicier the finer it is ground, and ground pepper would be far too strong. You can easily crack peppercorns by smashing them with the bottom of a small, heavy sauté pan.
About two hours before serving the dessert, lightly rinse the strawberries if they are sandy, and lay them in a single layer on a clean dish town to dry. Remove the hulls, then cut the berries in quarters or in half, lengthwise, according to size and place them in a large bowl. Sprinkle ¼ of the sugar over the berries and toss them to distribute the sugar. Pour over the Chianti Classico. Using a large spoon, gently turn the berries to coat them with the wine. Place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill, giving them a gentle toss every so often.
Place the whipping cream and the remaining ¼ cup of the granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer, and use the whip attachment on medium speed to beat the cream until soft peaks form. Add the ricotta and black pepper and briefly whip until the mixture is combined and somewhat firm.
To serve, place a generous spoonful of the ricotta cream in a dessert glass, and spoon some of the berries and their juices alongside and over the top.