It's strawberry time. Perfumed, complex and delicious, strawberries are the superstars of the early-summer British garden, alongside asparagus, broad beans and rhubarb and, like their fellow seasonal celebrities, our strawberries are the best you can get anywhere in the world, so don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. (And please, don't even think of substituting fresh strawberries for those sickly-sweet tinned ones you used to get as a kid - they're more like sweets masquerading as canned fruit.)
With a raw ingredient this good, it makes sense to make the best of them while they're around, and one of the most wonderful things about strawberries is that they go with an awful lot of stuff. And I mean a lot. For example: spices such as black pepper, pink peppercorns and chilli (yes, really); herbs such as lemon balm, hyssop, thyme, basil; and other summery stuff such as rose-water and elderflower.
All that said, though, the classic flavour pairing for strawberries is vanilla, and for a very good reason - you won't go far wrong if you just add something sugary and vanilla-scented to fresh strawberries, though to my mind a dollop or two of something rich and creamy is also pretty much obligatory.
Do this to all strawberries, always - it really helps to bring out those lovely, complex aromas. From this point, even just adding a blob of thick cream, yoghurt or creme fraiche makes an excellent dessert; and if you've got a bit more time, use them in a pavlova, tart, ice-cream or whatever. Serves four.
Wash and hull the strawberries (halve or quarter them if they are on the large side), then weigh those prepared strawberries. Sprinkle with about 10% by weight of caster sugar, stir gently to avoid bruising the fruit (add a couple of teaspoons of liqueur at this stage, if booze is your thing). Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes - the juice that seeps out of the strawberries is packed with flavour, so use that, too.
The separate elements of this classic dessert (and the following one) can be prepared well ahead of time and thrown together at the last moment. Serves four.
50g egg whites (freeze any extra and use the yolks to make mayonnaise)
70g caster sugar
50g icing sugar
200g double cream
Seeds from half a vanilla pod (stick the scraped-out shell and the other half of the vanilla pod in a jar filled with caster sugar, and hey presto, you have made vanilla sugar)
300g-400g macerated strawberries (see previous recipe)
Whip the egg whites in a stand mixer. When at stiff peaks, turn the mixer to top speed and whisk in 50g caster sugar until the mixture is smooth and glossy, then add the icing sugar and whip again until stiff and smooth. Place 50p-sized blobs of meringue mix on a baking tray lined with nonstick baking paper, and bake at 90C/200F for 90 minutes to two hours, until crunchy all through. Whip the double cream with the remaining 20g of caster sugar and the vanilla pod seeds (or a drop of essence) to soft peaks. Mix together macerated strawberries, cream and meringue in roughly equal quantities just before serving.
Another classic. Best not to mess about with old faithfuls like this too much. Serves four.
50g egg whites
50g caster sugar
50g icing sugar
400g double cream
40g caster sugar
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
300g-400g macerated strawberries (see first recipe)
Make the meringue mix as for the Eton mess, but this time divide it into two rectangles/squares/circles on two separate baking sheets lined with nonstick paper. Bake at 100C/225F for 75 minutes to two hours, until crisp on the outside but still gooey in the centre. Whip the cream, sugar and vanilla seeds (or two drops of essence) to soft peaks.
Spread the cream evenly over each cooled meringue, and scatter half the macerated strawberries on top of each. Carefully lift one meringue and place it on top of the other, and eat as soon as possible. This final part of the process is not usually a problem.
Strawberry and black pepper slush
When I was little, I used to get slush drinks from Bury market at the weekend. They were 90% sugar, 10% fluorescent food colouring. This one tastes a lot better and is a good deal easier on the eye. It should please the grown-ups just as much as the children. Serves four.
40g caster sugar
100ml double cream (dairy-free alternatives work well, too)
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
350g macerated strawberries (see first recipe)
Whisk the sugar into the milk and cream. Stir in the pepper, then tip into a shallow freezer-proof dish and freeze. Whisk every 15-20 minutes or so, until the mixture has frozen into a granular slush (this usually takes a couple of hours). Set aside a few macerated strawberries for garnish, and blitz 300g, along with their juices, with a hand blender or in a food processor. Push the pulp through a sieve - this gets rid of those annoying seedy bits - and pour into a jug. Divide the black pepper ice into well-chilled bowls or glasses and decorate with the reserved strawberries. Pour the puree over the top at the table.
Frozen strawberry parfait
This is less a recipe than a general guideline for one of my favourite strawberry puddings. Nothing is more welcome on a hot summer's day, and it looks gorgeous, too - like a posh Viennetta. Serves four.
300g macerated strawberries (see first recipe)
Whipped cream/thick yoghurt/creme fraiche (or dairy-free alternative)
Seeds from ½ vanilla pod/black pepper/pink pepper/rosewater/lemon balm
Toasted pistachios and/or white chocolate shards, to finish
Put the strawberries in a bowl, then add twice the amount by volume of either lightly whipped cream, thick yoghurt, creme fraiche or dairy-free alternative. Mash or puree the two together, then push through a sieve and stir in your flavouring of choice.
Line a dish or terrine mould with clingfilm (chef's trick: dampen the dish first, then press the clingfilm into place with a dry tea towel), fill with the parfait mix, packing it in firmly, then freeze until solid. Turn out on to a chilled plate, scatter with pistachios and/or white chocolate, and cut into slices at the table.
• Mary-Ellen McTague is chef/owner of Aumbry in Prestwich, Manchester.
Layer cake: Mary-Ellen McTague's strawberry pavlova - what's not to like? Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian. Food styling: Claire Ptak