Strawberry season is in full berry

Strawberries in puff pastry. BY JACK CLEMONS
June 3, 2013

Strawberry season is in full flower, or perhaps we should say full berry. We no longer have to settle for packaged fruit shipped in from California or Florida. The first fruit to ripen each spring is abundantly available from Delaware growers starting in the middle of May through the end of June. These were worth the wait.

Since they need to be picked by hand and don’t continue to ripen once they’re off the vine, the local harvest will be sweeter and juicier than the berries stacked in plastic boxes when they’re still firm enough to withstand shipping without bruising. Local berries also won’t have any white spots at their tips from leaving the plant too soon.

Depending on your degree of “pickiness” (no pun intended) you can select every berry individually at a you-pick farm, or you can let someone else pull them from their vines and visit the farmers market or roadside stand for a box of these rosy beauties. That’s not just a description of their color - strawberries are a member of the botanical rose family – notice the similarities between the blooms in your garden and the small white strawberry flowers.

One of the unusual features of strawberries is the placement of the seeds: they’re found on the outside of the fruit within tiny structures known as achenes. Some claim these brown specks are like dust motes or the chaff of straw and therefore the reason for their name. Others believe the name comes from the practice of covering strawberry beds with straw during cold weather. The latter is highly unlikely, since strawberries were named centuries ago when they thrived in the wild without any assistance.

My preferred choice for their name origin is in how the plants grow. They send out runners in every direction, as if they were straying or had been strewn on the ground. This is a sight not typically seen in current industrial strawberry production. There, the ground is covered with plastic and seedlings are placed in uniformly spaced holes. Runners are pruned away, so all the plant’s energy is devoted to producing brilliant berries.

No matter how they came to earn their name, there is nothing quite like a bite of perfectly ripe fresh strawberry. At first, you’re seduced by their distinctive aroma, followed by the burst of sweet juice and tender flesh that fills your mouth with the promise of sunshine.

When berries are this fresh, it’s best to store them in the refrigerator and try to eat them the same day you bring them home. Remove them from the box or bag and arrange them in a single layer to prevent them bumping and bruising their tender flesh. To serve them whole, either leave on the leafy caps to act as a handle or gently pluck them out with a strawberry huller.

The best way to enjoy fresh berries is to follow a recipe that leaves them in their natural state, like the shortcakes in the photo. Here, we’ve used a baked puff pastry shell instead of the more typical sponge cake disks or baking powder biscuits. The light, flaky texture of the pastry contrasts nicely with the bold berry juices and rich whipped cream.

I’ve included recipes for another way to showcase fresh strawberries – spinach salad. A mixture of baby spinach and peppery arugula provides a green bed for bright berries and toasted pine nuts. And, if you have any bruised berries, make breakfast wonderful with a strawberry compote - it will vanish so quickly you can skip the water bath and canning - just keep it chilled until there’s nothing left to spread on your toast. Which means it must be time to buy more strawberries.

Strawberry Shortcake

8 oz strawberries
1 T brown sugar
1/4 t lemon zest
8 oz whipping cream
1 t vanilla
1 T sugar

Rinse, drain and hull the berries. Slice into halves or quarters and place in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with 1 T brown sugar and lemon zest; cover and refrigerate for about one hour. Make whipped cream by combining remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer on high until soft peaks form; do not over beat. To serve, place cake on dessert plate, add 1/2 C berries and top with dollops of whipped cream. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

*Note: choose frozen puff pastry shells cooked according to the package directions, sponge cake shells or split buttermilk biscuits.

Strawberry Compote

1 lb fresh strawberries
1/2 C sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 t lemon zest

Hull and quarter the strawberries. Place in a saucepan with sugar and cook over medium high, stirring often. As they cook, press a few berries against the sides of the pan to mash them slightly. Once the mixture has thickened, about 15 to 20 minutes, stir in lemon juice and zest. Pour into a small serving dish and allow to cool.

Spinach & Strawberry Salad

1/2 C pine nuts
2 T rice wine vinegar
1 T lemon juice
2 t Dijon mustard
1/4 C olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
8 oz fresh strawberries
2 C baby spinach
1 C arugula
1/4 C feta cheese
1 t snipped chives

Place nuts in a dry skillet and toast lightly over medium-high heat, watching carefully so they do not burn; set aside. Combine vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, oil and chives in a serving bowl, whisking to emulsify; set aside. Hull and halve the strawberries; set aside. Place the spinach and arugula in the bowl with the dressing and toss vigorously to combine; top with strawberries. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with pine nuts, feta and chives before serving.

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