Thanks to a California-like spring, Portland’s strawberry season came early this year. The downside? All that heat means it’s going by way too fast.
Usually we reserve our berry picking excursions for mid-June, when school is out. That way we can head to the berry patch on a mid-week morning, skipping the weekend crowds and filling our buckets before the sun has had a chance to warm and soften the fruit too much. But well before Memorial Day we started hearing rumblings that the strawberries were nearly gone already. What?! We pretty much dropped everything that weekend and ran to Bella Organic Farm on Sauvie Island.
Sure enough, the plants were pretty picked over. One family even warned us as they left, a few meager berries rolling around in the bottom of their buckets, that the field was “very sparse.” But we’re a patient and stubborn lot, and we weren’t going to leave empty handed. So we combed the patch, plant by plant, and managed to come away with about eight pounds of exquisitely sweet, ruby-red-all-the-way-through, Oregon-grown strawberries.
Eight pounds of strawberries might seem excessive, but I truly wish I had triple the amount. Or more. (Definitely more.) My love of Oregon strawberries has no end, and neither does the list of things you can do with them. There are shortcakes of course, and jam, and rhubarb-spiked pies, and this ridiculously good concoction called Eton Mess.
But one of my favorite things to do with super-sweet Oregon strawberries is blend them into fresh lemonade. Sure, you can buy frozen lemonade concentrate and add frozen berries any time of year, but like most things made from scratch, homemade lemonade tastes way better.
When you make lemonade from scratch, you realize the other stuff you’ve been drinking is a harsh, one-dimensional replica of the real thing. Plus, you can easily customize it at will, adding more or less sugar, or maybe honey instead, fresh herbs (mint! lavender!), other citrus (how about limes?), other fruits (cherries are fabulous). You get the idea.
I like to make my lemonade with simple syrup, which is just an equal ratio mix of sugar and water. Yes, you can mix sugar into cold water, add lemon juice and be good to go. But what’s great about taking the extra step to heat the mixture into a syrup is that it gives the mixture viscosity, which translates into a luxurious silkiness in your drink. Plus, it’s an opportunity to infuse the syrup with other flavors. I’m partial to vanilla bean, which rounds out lemon’s harsh edges, and I also use the zest of the lemons themselves, to give the drink even more intense lemon flavor without added acidity. If you can make the syrup at least a day ahead to allow all the flavors to infuse, it’s even better.
Another thing I like to add is PROSECCO. After serving the kids their glasses of rosy-pink strawberry lemonade, sometimes with fizzy water if they’re feeling fancy, I’ll spike our glasses with a healthy pour of this dry sparkling wine.
Suddenly, our million-mile-an-hour life downshifts into a lazy cocktail hour, and we’re calling the neighbors over to share a glass on the porch. You know that advice to stop and smell the roses? Well, I say stop and squeeze the lemons. It’s much more satisfying.
Vanilla Bean Strawberry Lemonade
Makes about 8 cups
Letting the lemon zest infuse in the syrup overnight gives it a wonderfully intense lemon flavor that makes the resulting lemonade taste amazing. Another trick: Add a pinch of salt. You’d be surprised how salt mellows the acidity of lemonade and brings everything into harmony. But if you like that mouth-pucker feeling, skip it.
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 vanilla bean
Zest from 4 large lemons (just the yellow part, removed in fat strips with a vegetable peeler)
Juice from 4 large lemons (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 cups fresh or frozen strawberries
3 cups water (see note)
1 1/2 cups Lemon-Vanilla Syrup
Prosecco (optional, see note)
To make the syrup: In a medium saucepan combine the sugar and water. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds with the back of a knife and add to the pot, along with the pod. Add the lemon peels. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat then continue simmering for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain before using. If you have time, refrigerate for 24 hours before straining and using so the flavor will be more intense. (Strained syrup will keep refrigerated for several weeks.)
To make the lemonade: In a blender, combine the lemon juice, berries, water and syrup. Blend until fully combined. Taste and adjust with more syrup, lemon juice or water, and a few pinches of salt if desired. Serve over ice.
Note: If you plan to add prosecco, use just a cup of water when blending. Then dilute the mixture with more water when serving the kids (this is when you can add sparkling water if they want it a bit fizzy), or with prosecco for the grown-ups.