This strawberry season, make a dessert inspired by cannoli
Strawberries are grown in all 50 states and, depending on the state, the season can be as short as a few weeks or as long as 11 months. But the heart of the strawberry season — the sweet spot of the year when you can count on finding juicy, delicious and locally grown strawberries at your supermarket or farmer's market — is April through June.
Now that the goodies are at hand, here are a few tips about how to buy and store them. Start by selecting the specimens that are unblemished and smooth and, most important, bright red from tip to tail. Then, pick one up and take a whiff. It should smell strongly of ... strawberries.
When you get the winners home, put a layer of them in a shallow bowl lined with paper towels. Cover and store the berries in the refrigerator and try to eat them within a few days. (Local strawberries are more perishable than the commercial varieties.) Do not wash or hull the berries until right before you're ready to eat them.
When the moment arrives, simply put the strawberries in a colander and run some cold water over them. Then lift them out and let them drain on paper towels.
What makes this recipe Italian? The filling used to stuff these berries is a twist on the mixture of ricotta cheese, candied orange and chocolate that's piped into cannoli. The difference is that I substituted Neufchatel for ricotta because it's tangier and more assertive and teams up better with the berries.
This dessert is a simple and elegant way to end a meal now that spring has sprung — and it only takes 20 minutes to make. You can even prep the strawberries and stuffing ahead. But don't stuff them until the last minute. You don't want the sugar in the filling to make the berries soggy.
Italian stuffed strawberries
Start to finish: 20 minutes
1 pound strawberries
2 ounces Neufchatel or one-third less-fat cream cheese (about 1/4 cup), softened
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 ounce bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Cut each strawberry in half lengthwise through the cap. Arrange the strawberry halves, cut side up, on a serving plate. Trim a thin slice from the bottom if necessary to make each half sit evenly. Using a small spoon or melon baller, scoop out a hollow in the center of the cut side of each strawberry. Reserve the strawberry scraps for another use (or eat them).
In a small bowl combine the cream cheese and sugar; stir in the chocolate and orange zest. Divide the cream cheese mixture into the hollows in the strawberries and serve.
Chef's note: You can prepare the strawberries and the filling several hours ahead of time but do not stuff the strawberries until right before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 104 calories; 50 calories from fat; 6 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 47 mg sodium; 12 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 3 g protein.
Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."
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