Fresh strawberries remind me of Christmas. â€œNow hold on a minute,â€ I hear you saying. â€œIsnâ€™t this column all about eating seasonally? Unless youâ€™re talking about Christmas in July, thereâ€™s nothing seasonal about strawberries at Christmas.â€ Youâ€™re right, of course, and I would never advise actually serving strawberries in the winter, when the only kinds available are overgrown, nearly tasteless, and only barely tinted red. But as I was picking strawberries last week, my bucket slowly filling with tasty treats, I couldnâ€™t help making the connections. Â
Not only do strawberries look like little Christmas tree ornaments, dangling bright red and juicy among their green leaves, but for me, at least, the annual arrival of strawberry season carries with it much the same anticipation as waiting to open Christmas presents. Here in the Northeast, the strawberry season is abundant but fleetingâ€”for about three weeks, farmersâ€™ market stalls seem to have endless pint and quart containers spilling over with jewel-like berries. And then theyâ€™re gone, not to be seen again until next summer.Â
If your only exposure to strawberries is the large California varieties that flood supermarket cases starting in March, you owe it to yourself to seek out locally-grown varieties, whose juiciness and flavor make them seem like different fruits altogether. Although U.S. strawberry cultivation began on the East coast, short growing seasons and the fruitâ€™s fragility limited distribution possibilities. Starting in the 1940s, California growers began to develop larger, more robust varieties that could be grown nearly year-round and could be shipped cross-country and even overseas. But, as often is the case, taste suffered for the sake of convenience, and today, many people barely remember the intensity of true strawberry flavor.Â
Wild strawberries can be found throughout Europe, Asia, and North and South America. The cultivated strawberries we eat today date back to the seventeenth century, with the hybridization of two native North and South American species. Botanically speaking, the strawberry is an anomaly, the only fruit with seeds attached to the outside. Since those seeds are the real â€œfruitsâ€ of the berry, the part we eat is known as a false or accessory fruit. Thereâ€™s nothing false about the berryâ€™s fragrance, though, which floods the air near a strawberry field with mouthwatering scent. Â In fact, the Latin name, fraga, refers to the fruit's fragrance.
Picking strawberries from their low-growing plants can be tiring work for adults, but is perhaps the ideal garden chore for even very young children. Their shorter stature puts them in a perfect position to find those clusters of bright red berries hidden underneath leaves. Whatâ€™s more, strawberries lack the thorns and brambles that make raspberries and blackberries difficult to harvest. Once children experience the thrill of discovery and the explosion of sweet flavor for freshly-picked berries, who knows? Perhaps they, too, will anticipate strawberry season as much as they look forward to Christmas.Â
Selection: Choose plump, bright red berries without white â€œshoulders.â€ Size is not an indication of flavorfulness; in fact, the tiny, hard-to-find wood strawberries and wild strawberries are even more intensely flavored than traditional cultivated varieties. Â
Storage: Strawberries are very fragile and readily perishable. The most important thing is to keep strawberries dry. If you purchase them in a cardboard or plastic container, immediately transfer them to a single layer on a baking sheet lined with layers of paper towels. Doing so will keep them fresh in your refrigerator for 4-5 days. Wash berries right before using. Â
Preparation: The very best way to enjoy fresh strawberries is as simply as possible, with a small amount of fresh cream or ice cream. Locally grown strawberries should not require any additional sugar. Â As I mentioned in my column on rhubarb, sweet strawberries are a natural accompaniment to rhubarbâ€™s tartness. Here is a very simple recipe that combines the flavors while preserving the bright taste and color of fresh strawberries. Â
Recipe: Fresh Strawberry-Rhubarb TartÂ
- Prepare and pre-bake your favorite piecrust recipe in a tart or 9-inch pie pan. Allow the shell to cool completely before filling.
- Prepare rhubarb sauce (a recipe can be found in any standard cookbook), adding a mixture of 1 T. cornstarch and 2 T. water during the last two minutes of cooking. Cook until thickened and bubbly. Allow to cool completely.
- Pour rhubarb mixture into prepared pie/tart shell and spread evenly with a spatula.
- Wash, dry, and thinly slice 2 c. strawberries. Arrange the cut slices in a single layer on the rhubarb (I like to use either concentric circles or a spiral shape).
- Just before serving, brush the strawberries with a glaze made from either currant or (seedless) raspberry jam, melted in the microwave or on the stovetop.
_____________________________________________________Norah Piehl, Food Correspondent:Norahâ€™s column, â€œSeasonâ€™s Eatings,â€ published twice monthly to Gather Essentials: Food, considersÂ the importance of eating seasonally and locally. â€œSeasonâ€™s Eatingsâ€ helps the growing number of farmersâ€™ market shoppers make good choices at the market, highlighting in-season produce and often including a recipe or two. Norahâ€™s column alsos profile local growers and markets, discusses other items (from cheese to chutney) that might be found at your local market, and generally offer sresources for those who wish to continue exploring their local and regional agricultural offerings. www.gather.com/seasons eatingsKeep up with Norahâ€™s other postings and Gather activity by joining her Gather network -- just click here: http://quincy74.gather.com and select the orange â€œConnectâ€ button on the left-hand side of the page.
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