Strawberry Salad (It's a Dessert)
I worked a bit late yesterday, and when I came home, I had a fairly meager dinner of leftovers, then I read for a while, then I came back to the kitchen and waited for inspiration. No, really.
I had good strawberries, I had decent bread, I had heavy cream, and I had the usual staples. I took about six inches of a wide baguette and cut it into fairly large dice. I melted about 1.5 tablespoons of salted butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, then I added about 1/4 cup of sugar and about a tablespoon of Grand Marnier. When the sugar had dissolved, and the mixture was bubbling (this only took a minute), I added the cubed bread and stirred it around to soak up most of the boiling syrup.
Keeping my eye on the skillet, and giving the bread a toss every couple of minutes, I hulled and sliced (fairly thickly) strawberries until I had about two cups. I added two tablespoons of sugar and let them macerate while I continued to cook the bread.
The bread took perhaps ten minutes to toast properly. I wanted it to be nice and brown and caramelized so that it could stand up to the strawberries and maintain a nice crunch. I kept tossing it occasionally, in part because tossing food in a skillet is a lot of fun. When the croutons were as done as I wanted them to be, I turned off the heat and let them cool for three or four minutes.
I added the still-warm croutons to the strawberries and tossed them well to combine. Then I dressed the salad with about two tablespoons of heavy cream and tossed it some more. (Please note that I am, apparently, one of the perhaps five or six people still alive who would write that last sentence without resorting to using scare quotes around either "dressed" or "salad." Scare quotes are evil, people: stop using them. Right now. That goes double for the grocer's plural. Were you all raised by wolves?)
I don't really know who the muse of demented cooks is, but I think I should thank her. I don't know what the appropriate expression of gratitude is, but I'm thinking that maybe I can sacrifice a small squash in her honor. She's generally pretty good to me, if you discount that time in high school when I thought that layering pancakes, chocolate chips, and American cheese would be a good idea. I wasn't sure how the strawberry salad (and let's be honest, I didn't conceive it as a strawberry salad; I came up with that name this morning; the original title of this post was "The Thing Without a Name"; I'm still thinking that "Strawberry Salad" is ridiculously precious, but whatever) would turn out, but it was delicious. The croutons were warm and both crunchy and chewy. The strawberries were cool and firm and juicy and a little bit tart. The contrast of flavors and textures was terrific.
I'm thinking that the same treatment could work with fresh peaches or with any other juicy fruit that really doesn't need to be fussed around with too much. Depending on whom I'm serving it to (and how ripe the fruit is), I might add a bit more sugar to the fruit the next time around, and I might cut the croutons a little bit smaller, because they were a bit of a mouthful (they were not, however, as overwhelming as they look in that picture; most of the strawberries were hiding in the bottom; I guess they're camera shy). And I might skip the heavy cream dressing in favor of letting the fruit macerate a little longer and producing a little more syrup and serving whipped cream as an accompaniment. But I'm talking about fairly minor tweaks. I still want the croutons to be larger than salad croutons, and I still want the fruit to be mostly firm. I don't want to lose any of the contrasts or any of the flavors.
The Grand Marnier is key here, I think. You could try substituting another liqueur (if you were making this with peaches, Chambord would probably be a better choice) or some fresh orange juice and zest, but that would be a shame. It's the combination of the liqueur and the caramel that make the croutons, and it's the warm croutons that make the dish special, so if you don't have any, you're probably better off just eating the strawberries with some cream and spreading some nice cheese on the bread. (I did the cheese and bread last night, too, but by now you should realize that where other people see "or", I generally see "and".)