Make the best of berries: Summer treats are at peak

A strawberry-rhubarb pie is one of summer's truly delicious recipes. BY JACK CLEMONS
June 7, 2011

One highlight of last weekend’s opening day at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market was strawberries - baskets and baskets of cheery red berries wearing little green caps. Unlike the white-shouldered imposters found in the supermarket, these were smallish and shiny and running with sweet juice. My only mistake was buying too few.

Although urban legend claims strawberries were named from the practice of protecting tender plants with a layer of straw, they were around long before commercial cultivation practices would have developed. The almost 600 different varieties of strawberry have evolved from wild strains, all members of the rose family. Their familiar name most likely comes from the Anglo Saxon strea, meaning strew or spread around, which describes their growth habit of runners straying from the plant. This may also explain why the German word for strawberries (erdbeeren) translates to “earth berries.”

Because of its unique structure, the strawberry is actually a false fruit; the tiny seeds that cover the outside are the true fruit of the plant. Plump berries we find today are quite different from the original wild varieties. The forerunners of the modern strawberry hybrids were tiny, pointed gems with intense flavor, such as the Alpine strawberry or fraises des bois (still available, but quite costly).

When we arrived home with our fresh-picked strawberries we put into practice the proper way to handle and store them. Unless you plan to eat them immediately, they’ll do best in a humid, cool environment. For best flavor and texture you can keep the unwashed, unhulled berries in a covered container in the refrigerator for no more than two or three days. If left out on a counter or exposed to sunlight, they’ll start to rot (which is why some of the market vendors covered their berry baskets with burlap).

The next rule about using strawberries is to wash them just before serving or adding them to a recipe. Rinse gently, pat dry and remove the leafy cap and stem (if you reverse the order, they’ll absorb water and lose flavor). If you don’t own a strawberry huller, you can use a paring knife: insert the tip and cut a small circle around the top, angling toward the center to create a small cone of fibrous hull you can pull off and discard. Or, if you’re in a hurry, hold the berry by its cap and bite off a mouthful of juicy flavor.

It’s also possible to freeze strawberries to save that signature taste for muffins or smoothies. After washing, drying and hulling the berries, spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the pan in the freezer for about an hour or so, depending upon the size of the fruit. Once they’re frozen, transfer them to a zip-top plastic bag and store in the freezer, where they’ll keep for as long as a year.

Recipes for familiar strawberry dishes range from the traditional breakfast jam to layered shortcake. After sampling the market’s berries, we decided the best way to serve fresh beauties was with a simple topping: whipped cream is the ideal accompaniment, while the tang of sour cream is a nice change. To make good use of your frozen berry supply, I’ve included instructions on making strawberry butter to go with strawberry muffins, where either fresh or frozen work well. For the fancy crust on the strawberry-rhubarb pie in the photo, I placed the dough on a plastic pie cutout and ran the rolling pin over the raised shapes to create the design (much easier than weaving a lattice top).

One more thought about names – part of the Latin botanical name for strawberries is fraga, which can only refer to their heady aroma of early summer.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie
2 9-inch pie crusts
4 C chopped rhubarb
3 C hulled, chopped strawberries
1 C sugar
3 T cornstarch
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t lemon zestpinch salt
1 beaten egg

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with one of the crusts, leaving a slight overhang at the rim; set aside. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl, stirring to thoroughly distribute the cornstarch. Pour filling into the prepared pie pan and cover with the second crust. Press the crusts together, fluting around the entire rim of the pan. Brush the top with the beaten egg and cut two or three slits in the top crust for steam to escape. Place pie in the oven (place a sheet of aluminum foil on the rack below to catch drips). Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes; cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours before serving.

Strawberry Butter
1/2 C softened butter
1/3 C hulled, minced strawberries
2 T honey
1 T lemon juice
1/4 t lemon zest

Combine ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; beat until smooth. To serve immediately, scoop butter into a serving crock. For future service, roll mixture into a log, 1 1/2 inches in diameter; wrap in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. To serve, slice into disks and arrange in a serving dish; allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Strawberry Muffins
1 3/4 C flour
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/3 C packed brown sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 C flour
4 T butter, melted
4 whole strawberries
1 C sugar
1/4 C canola oil
2 eggs
2 C sliced strawberries

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Sift 1 3/4 C of flour with baking soda and salt into a small bowl; set aside. In another bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon, 1/2 C flour and melted butter; set aside. Place the whole strawberries in the bowl of a food processor or blender; puree until smooth and pour 1/2 C into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, oil and eggs; beat until creamy. Add the sliced strawberries, stirring until evenly distributed. Add the sifted flour mixture, stirring just until combined. Distribute the batter into the muffin cups. Sprinkle the brown sugar mixture over the batter in each cup. Bake for 20 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 12 muffins.

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