Strawberries with Romanoff Sauce is a simple treat, but it is suitable for any occasion, simple or splendid. I thought it was something very special when I first tried it and I still do, even though I now know what a simple offering it truly is. It celebrates the bounty of spring, but with a bit of unnecessary and delightful gilding.
Let me admit, up front, that when I serve myself I put about four times the amount of sauce that is shown in the photo. But had I photographed it the way I really like it, you would have been unable to see the strawberries.
1 pound of strawberries, rinsed, stemmed, halved or quartered
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon Cointreau
½ cup whipping cream
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped out
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
Once you have cleaned and cut the strawberries, place them in a bowl and sprinkle them with sugar and the Cointreau. Mix them gently with a spoon so that the sugar and alcohol is well distributed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes and up to 4 hours. The sugar and alcohol cause the strawberries to “macerate,” softening them a bit and making them juicy.
In a clean, cool bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks begin to form. Add the brown sugar a few teaspoons at a time, whisking it in after each addition. When all the sugar is incorporated continue to whip until the cream is fully whipped and nice firm peaks form. Add the sour cream, the vanilla extract and the seeds from half of a vanilla bean. Whip them in thoroughly. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
I was going to write a nice concise essay about hosts who are enviable in their collection of simple but elegant recipes that can be easily prepared ahead of time so that said host can actually shower before guests arrive. This strawberry preparation and Tomatoes with Herbes de Provence come to mind as great examples. But, if I did that I would miss out on telling you why I really love Strawberries with Romanoff Sauce. The short answer is, in 1989 I had it for the first time I recall at La Madeleine on Mockingbird Lane in Dallas when I went off to college and everything in the world looked and tasted brand new. While it might sound a lot more interesting if I said I ate it for the first time at a bistro in Paris, I did not. The long version follows.
If you aren’t confronted daily with certain rarefied opportunities, it is very easy to lead a very routine and comfortable existence without ever knowing you are missing out on a thing. My single-minded pursuit in high school was to have fun. Having been unleashed from Catholic school at the end of my sophomore year I flew headlong into the extracurricular joys of public education. I’ll let your imagination run free on that one, and depend on the good nature of my high school friends to not expound on the matter. Suffice to say cheeseburgers were, by choice, my culinary focus and thanks to my old pals Jeff and B.J., my cousin Joey and I made the leap from wine coolers to beer. And then, we expanded our tastes to include the highly concealable gin and Sonic. So, my culinary high water mark by the time I left high school was, well that.
And, in Wichita Falls at the time, practically the only chain restaurant in town was Bennigan’s. And before you laugh, let me say that we were lucky to have it, and my family might have been the very best customers for a few years. I can probably recite 75% of the menu today. I had been to fine restaurants and I had traveled to wonderful places with my parents. Shawn, the chef at the Wichita Falls Country Club made a mean Chateaubriand. It isn’t as if I hadn’t been exposed to great food. But our daily life was about medicine (Dad), higher education and managing a medical practice (Mom), basketball, football, waterskiing and swimming in the lake in the warm weather, and other not so productive pastimes (my brother, cousins and myself). Today, the Falls has several lovely restaurants, a whole bevy of the chains, and the old standard heart attack joints that make the best cheese enchiladas known to man. But I was perfectly happy there back then. I wouldn’t trade my high school years in Wichita Falls for all the art films and swanky bistros in the world.
There is a lot of talk in the press these days about foodies and food snobs. I find the entire dialogue off-putting. Because, unless you were born urban, urbane, and with a silver spoon planted in your mouth, it is likely that your tastes were developed at the family dining room table on staples such as tuna casserole and your grandma’s green Jell-o salad, much like mine were early in life. Or, they were developed at a Bennigan’s or other dining room table of opportunity, like mine were later in my early life. At some point in my teens my mom (a gifted cook) got tired of nobody showing up for dinner (call schedules, sports, aforementioned beer training, and her own M.B.A. studies) and we started having our family meals at Bennigan’s when we could all get together. Even at Bennigan’s, unbeknownst to me, I was cutting my culinary teeth, so to speak. I learned that I have a passionate dislike for cilantro. I fell for a Cajun chicken dish, the sauce from which was sometimes over-spiked with cilantro. And in one bite of food there, I found my enduring connection (though I didn’t know it then) to Julia Child. I too hate Cilantro in more than the merest quantities.
But, Bennigan’s caused my family to sit for an hour and talk to each other and laugh. And no one was exhausted from cooking or dreading the dishes. There is a time and a place for everything, and those few years were the Bennigan’s years. But I am just about exhausted from the incessant whippings that some elements of the food culture give each other about what is considered de rigueur or fashionable at the moment. Because for me, the only food fashion worth talking about is the food that makes you smile, and the meals that bring you together with your spouse, partner, kids or friends. And it is the smiles that make that food taste so good. Or, is it the good tasting food that can put a smile on a busy face. At any rate, I’d rather eat green jell-o with my grandmother today than anyone who would tell me that the Olive Garden is beneath them (which was actually the topic of a recent internet foodie kerfuffle, believe it or not). And I’d rather poke a sharp stick into my own eye than patronize a restaurant which tries to achieve an air that I should feel lucky to be there, as opposed to the restaurant appreciating having me as a customer.
And, even the tuna casserole scenario assumes a pretty fortunate upbringing by today’s standards. So many more of us were, and still are, eating Doritos and Coke for dinner.
For every hipster who eats local, I’d like to show you photos of my grandma Dean’s vegetable garden and say that unless you know on a cellular level the sound of breaking earth and roots an onion or potatoes make when you pull it from the hard earth in Archer County, you don’t really know local. One man’s trend is another man’s everyday existence. One person’s laughing stock of a “worst restaurant ever” scenario is another person’s special occasion. One person’s “one cycle” fascination with designer cupcakes is the special offering of another tired homeroom mom, prepared with love, to bring a moment of joy (in those places where moderation still rules and a little sugar hasn’t been equated with napalm). And, next year, when pies aren’t the sweethearts of the culinary cognoscenti, I’ll still be banging away at my crusts trying to make something that will make my ancestors smile down on me. I think I appreciate my mortality enough to know that every drop of wisdom I receive from the humblest cafeteria lady or celebrated industry lions is a drop to be honored. Everyone gains their knowledge and appreciation of food and cooking in their own way. It is personal, cultural, and historical. It is not a competitive sport.
Besides, you must also know bad to know good. You must fail many times to finally succeed. You must know what sour is to even begin to define sweet. And you probably don’t appreciate finery and the exotic unless you have a firm grasp of the average, as well. I reject the notion that very good food cannot be obtained at just about any restaurant in any town, depending on who is in the kitchen at the moment, Olive Garden and Bennigan’s included. I really doubt that anyone is born cool. And if they are, I assure you that I have little interest in meeting them. Because, good sense and good b.s. come only from those who have rolled around in the dirt a little.
Which leads me back to the fact that the first time I had Strawberries with Romanoff Sauce was at La Madeliene on Mockingbird Lane during my first semester at SMU. I also had my first cup of coffee that year at the 7-11 on Mockingbird Lane. Suffice to say that I was a bit gobsmacked by the absolute splendor of the opportunities to try new things, gastronomically and otherwise. But, getting to eat at La Madeleine at that point in my life was a huge treat because almost everything on the menu was new to me. And, it still is a treat because the food is good and it never fails to remind me of my first days when I was on my own, feeling rather jubilant. I recently set out to find a Romanoff sauce that compares to my good memories of the dish. And, this is it.
This is absolutely fine without the Cointreau if you prefer to skip the alcohol for whatever reason. It adds a hint of orange to the flavor of the strawberries that is very pleasant. I use very little of it and skip it altogether when I am making this for the kids. Likewise, skip the vanilla bean if you don’t have one handy. It is a little extra something special, but the extract is enough. The difference between the cost of this dish with and without the Cointreau and vanilla bean if you do not have it on hand does not merit the purchase if you are on a budget. It is great without them. If you choose to purchase the Cointreau, you can also use some in my recently posted Carrot Cake recipe. Also, I buy my vanilla beans in quantity from J.R. Mushrooms on Amazon so it is not nearly the investment ingredient as it would seem at the grocery store, where they cost upwards of $10 for one bean.
PRINTING: Remember, if you want to print the recipe but not the rant, the print icon below allows you to check a box to remove the images and then click on paragraphs you want to delete. It saves a lot of paper, given my occasional gabby mood.