Strawberries with Balsamic and Basil

This simple strawberry salad is one of my favorite ways to end a meal. Especially now, when the days are long, warm, and the markets are overflowing with super ripe sweet berries and fruit. Best of all, this dessert is as delicious as as it is beautiful, and it requires zero baking, measuring, and very little time.

Balsamic macerated strawberries are a classic, and yet I've met many who have never tried them. The acidity and murky sweetness of the balsamic (real, good balsamic - read the bottle carefully, make sure it doesn't have artificial coloring or high fructose corn syrup) goes so nicely with the perfectly ripe summer strawberries. I also added juice from an orange, and fresh mint in addition to basil - both those ingredients did something special to the salad. Really, you can mix and match any of the ingredients below and you'll have something that's sooo good. At the end of the day, how can you go wrong with fresh strawberries and cream?

Strawberries with Balsamic, Basil, and Mint, served with Mascarpone Topping
Serves 6

3 pints strawberries, lightly rinsed and dry
3 tablespoons very good aged balsamic vinegar (or to taste, depends on your vinegar)
Juice of 1/2 an orange
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (or to taste)
8-10 basil leaves, sliced thin (i.e. a chiffonade)
5-6 large mint leaves, chopped fine
1 cup mascarpone
1 tablespoon half and half
1 teaspoon maple syrup.

Slice your berries into halves or quarters, depending on the berry's size and your preference. Add them to a bowl. Add the balsamic vinegar, orange juice and sugar to the berries. Gently toss the berries. Add the basil and mint to the coated berries, lightly toss again. Be careful not to bruise the berries too much. Let the berries for marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.

In a small bowl, combine the mascarpone, half and half, and maple syrup.

Guests can top their serving of berries with a dollop of the very lightly sweetened mascarpone.

The berries should be eaten the same day you make them. They'll last for an afternoon or an evening, but not much more than that. I hardly expect you'll have leftovers.

Simple Salad and Simple Dressing

I love making salads. It's a funny thing to love to make. Salads are often an afterthought when one is preparing a meal for friends. Salads are that thing you eat when you're trying to be healthy, or when you're trying to incorporate more greens into your diet. Salad is often treated as a second class citizen in the culinary world.

I hold salads and salad dressings in high esteem.  As a kid, I would always ask my mom for seconds of salad. As an adult, I crave them on a daily basis. Part of my love of salads coincides with my love of condiments.

I'm a sucker for a good sauce or add-on.  A great dressing or vinaigrette is my personal favorite kind of sauce.  The best kind of dressing is one that masters a balance of tangy, salty, sweet, and oily.  One of the staples in my arsenal is an exceedingly simple dijon balsamic vinaigrette.  Personally, I prefer a tahini dressing; but a great balsamic dressing is always a crowd pleaser.

It is imperative that you start with a great balsamic when you make this dressing. There are a lot of guides on the internet for picking the best balsamics (here's one). Above all else, check the ingredients. Added sugar or caramel is super whack. Avoid buying vinegar with any kind of added sweetener.

Back to the salad itself... for dinner parties, I like to keep my salads simple. Usually, I stick to 3 ingredients: something leafy, something crunchy, something unexpected/fun - this could be an ingredient with a great color, flavor, or texture (i.e. watermelon radishes, thinly sliced zucchini, carrot ribbons, pickled shallots, and so on.)

This salad is super easy, and the earthy pine nuts and sweet currants go well with the spicy arugula. Tangy sweet balsamic dijon dressing brings it all together.

Arugula, Currant and Pine Nut Salad with Balsamic Dijon Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

for the salad:
7 ounces of arugula
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or however much you want), lightly toasted if desired
3 tablespoons dried currents (or however much you want)
salt and pepper

for the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon whole grain mustard (optional)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot (totally optional)

Put al of your salad ingredients in a large bowl.  Season your arugula with salt and pepper. Yes, before you dress the salad.

Add the balsamic and mustards to a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. If you're using shallot, add it to the dressing and stir. Ok, here's what should happen at this point:
TASTE IT. Taste your dressing for Pete's sake. You might need more oil. You might need more mustard. You might need more balsamic. Every ingredient differs, everyone's taste differs.  If you like your dressings on the sweet side add a little honey or agave to the mix. Start with a 1/4 teaspoon and go from there.  A great way to taste your dressing is to dip a leaf of arugula into it. If it tastes the way you want it on the rest of your salad your dressing is good to go.

Just before you're about to eat the salad, drizzle some of the dressing around the sides of the bowl. Gently toss the leaves in the dressing. Your hands are best for this operation. Start slowly, you can always add more dressing.  Once your leaves are glistening with your desired amount of dressing, serve!