Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Willing Spring: Strawberry Fillo Napoleon


I know there's still snow outside. And I am well-aware that the area's growing season is a long way off from the heady agricultural euphoria of a thriving farmers' market. But god help me, I am sick of stews and sweaters. So when I walked past a pint of strawberries and caught the faintest sweet whiff of SoCal spring, my inner Slow Foodist completely caved. I bought these sad little berries wishing, willing for spring. I admit it—I'm forcing the tender proverbial stalks of rhubarb, here. I cleaned off a little corner for myself in the communal kitchen to fool my stomach into thinking it was green and glorious outside. Maybe my mind would follow. So much for living in the moment. But that's what happens when you have a bad case of Spring Fever.

Only slightly sexual

After a good wash and some coaxing with a sharp knife, the berries came alive. Each slice oozed with red juice that stained the carving block pink and the perfume that was on my hands was better than any perfume received or given. Aromatherapy and cooking go hand in hand. And with the iPod blasting, my mind flickered with images of renewal. A time where I can shed the sweater and socks and run barefoot through grass that squishes every so slightly between my toes. Winter is comforting, cocooning. But after a while it gets to be suffocating. I'm ready to peel back the layers and show some skin. Flirt with the sun, the flowers, and the fellow driving in the car next to me.

Ouzo for boozy berries

These berries couldn't be cooked. I didn't want anything braising or roasting. Just sugar and a healthy swig of ouzo to turn this sweet demure pile of strawberries into a heady intoxicating concoction. Black licorice flavor goes really well with the berries. Contrary to what the mind may equate to such a union, it amplifies the "sexy" in strawberry. And I have too many good memories of friends, ouzo, and talking/laughing into the wee hours of the night. A friend called in the middle of this experiment. I told my him what I was making. He cooed over the phone, "Ooooh, I LOVE ouzo." After about an hour in the bowl, you can inhale that light fragrance as you would from any bloom. Intoxicating in taste and amount of liquor. My ouzo-loving friend licked the spoon.


You could consider it an "adult fruit salad." Naughty you. Offer it up after a heavy meal. A promise for something different in the weeks to come. If you're really wicked, you can offer it up to a Mormon picnic as a topping for Sister Jensen's Jell-O salad. But I won't go that far. Promise.

It's quite good spooned with whipped cream for an easy fool (is it just me or do English desserts really rock?), used to top a cheesecake, or even just over some ricotta cheese. It can be as slapdash or as proper as you'd like. Sunday left me restless and feeling fiddly enough to play with the last of the frezer's fillo. The whole process done in a kitchen dark from overcast snowing skies is theraputic, if deceiving. The grey air makes the berries look like it's presented to you in Technicolor. And if you make it on a snowy day, it sends a signal from your kitchen to the natural forces at large that you are quite sick of shoveling your walk way. Even if they don't listen, at least you had a good dessert.

Sacrifice for spring

Strawberry Ouzo Mock Napoleons for a Mock Spring Day

1 pint strawberries, washed, hulled, and thinly sliced * up to 2 tablespoons sugar * 1/4 cup ouzo or sambuca * zest of 1/2 orange * 3 sheets fillo, thawed * 1 1/4 cup ricotta or marscapone cheese * powdered sugar to taste and for garnish * juice and zest of 1/2 orange

Combine strawberries, sugar to taste, ouzo, and the zest in a bowl. Let sit at room temperature for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter each fillo sheet and layer one on top of each other and place the whole lot on the counter so that the long sides of this rectangle face you. Cut in half down the middle. Cut one side in half in the same direction, then cross-cut into thirds so that it yields 6 pieces. Repeat with the other side. Place on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Place one-third of the macerated berries into a blender and puree until smooth. No need to strain. Pour this thick puree back into the bowl with the other berries.

Combine cheese, sugar to taste, and the juice and zest. Now, you're ready to assemble. Take one cut piece of fillo and place it on the plate. Using a spoon or a piping bag, place a bit of the sweetened cheese onto the fillo. Top with boozy strawberries. Repeat until you've used three fillo pieces, ending with the third. Dust with powdered sugar because it looks pretty, and well, it's still snowing outside. Serve immediately with more boozy juices spooned onto the plate. Eat thinking of lilacs and green green grass.