Friday, June 17, 2011

Focus: STRAWBERRIES (Fragaria Ananassa)

Minnesota may not have pineapples or oranges, but we have strawberries!   For fruits grown in the U.S., strawberries are second only to apples in popularity. They are probably the most commonly planted fruit in home gardens. Traditional varieties bear fruit in late June or early July and for that reason have been called "June bearing" berries. New varieties that extended the season - but produced slightly smaller berries - were called "everbearing". Now a third type of strawberry has been introduced which produces berries throughout the season - they are called "day neutral".   When most people think of Minnesota grown berries, however, they think of a June season. 

Strawberries, along with blackberries and raspberries, are members of the Rose family. The true fruits of the strawberry are the little seeds on the surface of the berry, which are called achene. The tasty flesh surrounding the seeds is not the fruit - you could think of it as the "packaging" for the fruit.

The strawberry is native to both Eurasia and the Americas. The Romans planted strawberries in their gardens and the French cultivated them as early as the 14th century. Early in the 1700's the French brought large berries native to Chile back to France. Thus began the breeding which has led to our modern varieties and larger berries.  Delicious as cultivated strawberries can be, however, many believe that wild strawberries surpass them in flavor.

About 83% of American strawberries are commercially grown in California.  Thanks to harvests in California, Florida, Chile and elsewhere, strawberries are available to most Americans year around. But the flavor of most commercial berries does not compare to that of "fresh and local" berries.   While those huge California berries may look beautiful, their less flashy homegrown cousins pack a superior taste punch.

A one cup serving of fresh strawberries contains more than a day's worth of vitamin C.
Strawberries are also high in manganese, folate, potassium, iodine, dietary fiber and antioxidants.  Strawberries are low in calories - only 43 calories in a cup.

Storage and Preparation
Store berries unwashed.  Before refrigerating, remove berries that are soft or have any signs of mold.  Very ripe berries should be eaten (or frozen) within a day or two.  Store berries in a ventilated plastic berry box or produce bag.  I have had luck spreading berries in a single layer on a kitchen towel or paper towels on a cookie sheet, loosely covered with another towel or ventilated plastic bag.  This inhibits spoilage due to spreading mold.  Gently rinse berries just before using.  Drain in a colander and lightly pat dry with a kitchen towel. 

Freezing - Sugaring berries before freezing improves their color, flavor and shape.
Dry pack:  Add half a cup of sugar per each quart of washed and sliced fruit.  Place in freezer bags or containers and freeze.
Syrup pack:  Place washed whole berries in containers.  Cover with a syrup made by heating one cup of sugar to every one cup of water.  (Cool syrup before pouring over berries.)
Whole unsweetened berries:  Wash, dry and hull berries.  Place on baking sheets or trays and freeze solid.  Then pack into freezer bags.  These bags of berries are great to have around for fruit smoothies during the winter.

One way many people like to preserve berries is to make jam or preserves.  Here is a good link for jam making.

Methyl Bromide (MeBr)
Despite the Montreal Protocol on Depletion of the Ozone Layer, it continues to be common in the conventional strawberry industry (as well as other agricultural sectors) to rely on preplant fumigation with methyl bromide.  MeBr depletes the stratospheric ozone layer.  For that reason the amount of MeBr produced and imported in the U.S. was phased out by January 1, 2005, EXCEPT for "critical use exemptions".  The exemptions are "designed for agricultural users with no technically or economically feasible alternatives."  One nice thing about your Featherstone Farm berries is that you can be confident they were grown without the use of methyl bromide.   

Want to learn more?
This link will bring you to an excellent website listing all manner of resources about strawberries.  Warning - it takes a little while to load.


Strawberry Sorbet

First make some simple sugar syrup - one cup of water and one cup of sugar, bring to a boil, stir to dissolve sugar.  Let cool and then refrigerate.
Wash and hull about 4 heaping cups fresh strawberries.  Place in a blender and puree along with cold sugar syrup.  Put in an ice cream freezer (I love my Donvier - easy to use, inexpensive, no electricity or rock salt) and freeze.  If you want, put into a container in your freezer until a bit harder.  It it freezes hard, just take out 15 minutes or so before serving so i is easier to scoop.
That's it.  If you have good ripe berries it is all you need.
Strawberry Onion Relish
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups sweet onions, in large dice
1 pint strawberries, chopped
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy cooking pan.  Add the onions and cook slowly,  stirring frequently, until they are soft and the color of light brown sugar. (You are caramelizing the onions.  Now you know how easy this is.)

Next, add the strawberries, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and continue to cook over medium low heat until thick. Remove from heat and let sit for 15 minutes.

Serve warm or room temperature with meats or other dishes, as you would a chutney.

Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake
1.  The biscuits.  Make some plain buttermilk or cream biscuits - but add a little sugar to the dough - about 1T per one cup flour.   If you don't have a recipe, here is one:

2.  The berries.  While the biscuits are baking, wash and slice berries - at least half a cup per serving.  Add sugar to taste, mash a little with a fork and let sit until juicy.

3.  The whipped cream.  Just before serving, make some whipped cream.  Please don't use "whipped topping".  Please use the real thing.  Add just a little sugar to sweeten.  If you have some sour cream or yogurt or creme fraiche around, add a little to the whipped cream for a nice tang.

Assembly:  Split a biscuit.  Spoon some berries on the bottom half.  Put a spoonful of whipped cream on the berries.  Put the biscuit top on the top.  If you are feeling extravagant, put another small dollop of cream on the top biscuit and top with a whole berry.

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