(May 29) Two guests sit down for a nice dinner and some entertainment at Roger Rocket’s Dinner Theater in Fresno, Calif. They place their entrée orders: one ravioli and one halibut. The surprise? Both dishes include strawberries.

FROM SUNRISE TO SUPPER

Although strawberries are traditionally served solo or in sweet desserts, don’t hesitate to surprise guests by adding them to main dishes and other meal parts.

Executive chef Eric DeGroot at Roger Rocket’s says strawberries add a unique flavor in savory dishes. Strawberries work well with the taste of balsamic vinaigrette, which led DeGroot to develop his strawberry ravioli recipe, he says. For the sauce, he lightly melts butter in a saucepan and adds chives and strawberry chunks. Then he tosses ricotta and goat cheese-stuffed ravioli in the butter sauce, adds toasted pecans and laces it with balsamic reduction.

DeGroot also likes to use strawberries in a sweet and hot combination. He makes a salsa using strawberries for the sweetness and jalapenos for the hotness. He serves the salsa with grilled fish, like halibut or another light white fish. The salsa also works well with grilled salmon, he says.

Breakfast is a great place to get strawberries on the menu, says Dominique Hansen, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville. People are familiar with strawberries at breakfast, but it’s still exciting, she says.

Add strawberry color and flavor to breakfast with unusual dishes like a strawberry breakfast pizza. Start with refrigerated biscuits rolled out and lightly baked. Top biscuits with a combination of finely grated orange peel, honey and cream cheese and bake a bit more. Finally, top the cooked pizza with fresh strawberries that have been tossed with orange juice and honey. Garnish with mint sprigs. You can find this and many other strawberry recipes on the California Strawberry Commission’s Web site, www.calstrawberry.com.

GIVE A FIX FOR THE SWEET TOOTH

Of course, strawberries form the basis of many delicious desserts. Their light, summery sweetness makes them a special treat and a fantastic way to end a meal.

Mindy Segal, pastry chef and partner of MK and MK North in Chicago, says strawberries are her favorite fruit. In one of her favorite recipes, the strawberry baked alaska, she combines strawberry ice cream, strawberry cake, meringue and rhubarb consomme. She tops round pieces of strawberry cake with strawberry ice cream, then meringue. She cooks the frozen dessert to lightly brown the meringue and finishes it with a covering of warm strawberries and rhubarb consomme.
Executive chef Frank Proto of Layla restaurant in New York creates a parfait using strawberries macerated in red wine, sugar and vanilla. Then he blends ricotta cheese, cinnamon and sugar in a food processor and layers the two combinations in a parfait or wine glass, he says.

Executive chef John Mooney of Heartbeat restaurant in the W Hotel, New York, often serves strawberries with chocolate or cream. At the end of the season, he likes to make strawberry preserves.

One slightly more unusual recipe Mooney created was basic strawberry shortcake with rosemary. He simply made the cake with rosemary in it, and then skewered rosemary as a garnish through the top and served it with strawberries and cream.

Mooney also makes a strawberry tart in which he macerates strawberries in their own juice and adds other juice like lime or orange. Then he serves them in a tartlet with gorgonzola cheese, he says. “Strawberries are really balanced,” Mooney says. “The sugar content is perfect, and they smell great.”

The most important thing about working with strawberries is the quality of the berry, says Nick Saba, director of quality assurance and kitchen operations for the Marie Callender’s restaurant chain, Aliso Viejo, Calif., which has more than 160 locations in the U.S. The restaurants are famous for fresh strawberry piein season.

“People are so anxious to get (strawberries) onto the menu that the quality may not be there,” Saba says. “You have to be patient and wait and let nature take its course.”

SIDES: FROM SALADS TO SMOOTHIES

Using strawberries in appetizers, side dishes and drinks adds a fresh, nutritious element to any meal.

Strawberries can be a great fruit in a lettuce salad. At Layla, Protoserves feta and strawberry salad featuring feta cheese and strawberries over microgreens with red wine vinegar, olive oil and balsamic reduction.

“Strawberries have a sweet/sour flavor, and feta cheese is kind of creamy and sour. All the flavors come together,” Proto says. “Olive oil is kind of fruity and flowery, the greens are earthy. You get a little of everything — salty, sour, sweet.”

Beverages offer a delicious fun place to add strawberries. One beverage, licuado or licuado con leche, is popular in Mexico and Central America and is gaining popularity in the U.S., Hansen says. The simple drink combines berries, milk and ice to create a fruity drink. “It doesn’t take a lot of ingredients or labor, and it’s good nutritionally,” Hansen says.

Blend strawberries with juice, yogurt, ice cream or other fruit to make creative smoothies. For a smooth drink in the bar, try strawberry velvet. Mix frozen strawberries, vanilla ice cream, white crème de cacao and brandy blended and garnished with whipped cream and chocolate curls, according to the strawberry commission. Use strawberries in the bar as a tasty and unique garnish for mixed drinks.

TAKE IT FROM SUPPLIERS

Strawberries are perfect for any menu because everybody loves them, says Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well Pict Inc., strawberry growers in Watsonville. “You can go into a room with a bottle of wine and you get smiles. But if you go in with a tray of strawberries, everyone wants a piece,” he says.

Well Pict tries to encourage multiple uses for strawberries at foodservice shows, says Julie Cox, account representative for Marketing Plus, Fresno, marketing manager for Well Pict. DeGroot developed his strawberry ravioli recipe for Well Pict, which premiered the dish at the 2002 Produce Marketing Association’s Annual Convention and Exposition. “It was very well received. … It had a lot of chefs thinking in a different way, which was our goal,” Cox says.

Work with your suppliers on special strawberry promotions. In March 2002, The Peabody hotel in Orlando, Fla worked with Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, on a strawberry promotion. Driscoll supplied the restaurant with posters and customized menu covers with strawberry graphics. The restaurant printed its own menu on the inside, says Susan Boyer, Driscoll’s foodservice marketing consultant.

The company is willing to do a similar promotion for other restaurants, she adds.

Driscoll recently developed its foodservice menu solutions brochure for chefs, which features usage ideas, care and handling tips and nutrition information on strawberries and the other berries Driscoll’s offers, she says.

FIND SOLUTIONS

For all its virtues, the quick perishability of strawberries presents challenges
Several chefs have developed methods to avoid wasting the fruit. If fruit is just starting to go bad, Layla’s Protocuts out the bad spots and breaks them down with some sugar, he says. Several chefs suggest freezing the strawberries for later use. But freezing strawberries will break down their shape a bit, so they should only be used broken down afterward in a puree or jam, not served whole, says DeGroot of Roger Rocket’s.

Another challenge chefs may face when working with strawberries is a loss of color. Strawberries can turn gray when they are cooked, which takes away from the presentation of any dish. “I tend to add a little beet juice, and that will add the color I’m needing … Obviously you don’t want a strawberry tart that’s gray,” DeGroot says.

EXAMINE PACKAGING

While most foodservice operators still prefer the classic flats of little green baskets, the use of clamshell containers has greatly escalated in the retail sector. Many packagers are trying to develop larger clamshell possibilities for foodservice.

Pacific Agricultural Packaging, Watsonville, developed a 4-pound clamshell container for foodservice, says Dave Baum, vice president of sales and new product development. The company also is developing a 5-pound clamshell. Clamshell packaging helps extend the shelf life of the berries by about seven to 10 days, Baum says. Also, clamshell packages help retain moisture so that strawberries are more manageable.

Baum says clamshell packaging is becoming increasingly prevalent. “The biggest issue for foodservice is that it keeps the food separated,” he says. “It keeps strawberries in their own area where they’re contained instead of having them exposed to other foods where they could be contaminated.”

But flats of mesh baskets remain the most popular form of packaging for chefs. The bulk packaging simply offers more quantity, which is the main concern in many kitchens.

Naturipe Berry Growers, Watsonville, packages many of itsberries in clamshells but hasn’t seen them really take hold in the foodservice industry, says Craig Moriyama, vice president of fresh sales. Although Naturipe tried to market a two 4-pound clamshell package, it never really caught on, he says. “We think the clamshell is a benefit because it’s just less handling. … You pack it once and then don’t touch it again. … The drawback is the smaller proportions.”

Often, space constraints make flats of pints work better in foodservice, says Jeanne Clark, market manager for Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv Corp.

“If they get the ones with the pints in it, it’s easy to divide it into separate areas of the restaurant such as the bar, the pastry area, the salad bar,” she says.

Foodservice distributors have asked for one major improvement on strawberry packaging: lids on flats. Whether it be a corrugated cardboard top or netting, distributors and chefs are looking for ways to protect strawberries from other foods and materials falling in during shipping and storage, Clark says. Pactiv’s corrugating company has developed some containers with corrugated cardboard lids to accommodate these needs.
Although Clark agrees that clamshell packaging offers many benefits, she sees that many foodservice operators work better with bulk flats. “If space constraints dictate that the pints seem to work better, then don’t knock a good thing,” she says.