Berry Yourself

Berry Yourself

Copyright Leigh Abernathy. All Rights Reserved.

"Strawberry pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream, strawberry compote, strawberry preserves, strawberry jelly, strawberry daiquiri, strawberry margarita, strawberry syrup, strawberry pancakes, strawberry smoothie. . ." A catalogue of strawberry delights sounds like Bubba from Forrest Gump reciting all the ways he knows to fix shrimp.

Growing your own provides you with your own personal supply. To supplement your personal patch, consider going to a pick-your-own field. Your local County Extension Agent can provide you with a list of growers in your area.

Either way, nothing beats strawberry season--standing in the patch, when the aroma of strawberries floats by you on the breeze and you start to salivate in anticipation. Then you spot it--the first perfect berry of the season--and pop the whole thing, warm and juicy, into your mouth.

Oh, yeahhhh. It's always better than your memory.

Select only berries that are a deep, glossy red all the way to the tip; pinkish or white-tipped ones aren't fully ripe and won't be as sweet.

Fill your bucket loosely or the berries on the bottom will bruise from the weight of the ones above them. Why? Ripe berries are fragile. That's why the strawberries you find in the store are usually underripe--they are picked for shipping when the strawberry is only half or three-quarters red. While strawberries will redden after picking, they don't get any sweeter, so vine-ripened berries are your best flavor bet.

Stuck with store berries? Check the whole carton and leave behind any with obviously bruised or moldy fruit. Next, smell them. A ripe strawberry smells like a strawberry. If there's no aroma, there's no taste, so pick the best smelling ones.

Sort the strawberries to remove any bruised fruits; like apples, a single bad one can spoil the whole bunch. If you don't plan to use or freeze the berries right away, refrigerate but don't wash them because water damages the delicate skin and starts decomposition (i.e., mush, mold, and melted goo). They'll keep best in a single layer on a paper towel covered loosely with plastic wrap.

When you're ready to use them, rinse the strawberries first and remove the leaves afterwards. Otherwise, they absorb too much water, diluting that intense strawberry flavor. The end of a vegetable peeler, a sharp knife or the tip of a spoon do a great job of hulling the berries.

Don't feel guilty about eating your strawberries--even pints and pints of them--because strawberries are a nutritional powerhouse. One cup has only 42 calories, plenty of potassium, folic acid and 50 percent more vitamin C than the same amount of oranges, so serve and enjoy them often.

Fortunately, you won't be treated like Martin Van Buren for doing it. During his 1840 presidential re-election campaign his opponents wanted to paint him as an aristocrat out of touch with the common man. How did they do it? They accused him of using public money to raise strawberries in his garden. (Ooooooh. The crime of it.) It worked. He lost the election.

Understand that until the early part of this century, people viewed strawberries as an aristocratic food--an extravagance for the wealthy. Most ordinary citizens had to pay exorbitant market prices or traipse to wild patches to enjoy strawberries. Today, strawberries are grown in all 50 states and enjoyed by people in all walks of life--presidents and proletariats alike.

Strawberries freeze well. If you're going to be using them later in pies, cakes or to top ice cream, sweeten them before freezing by packing them in sugar or a sugar syrup. Both use liquid to surround the berries and protect them from freezer burn.

The easiest method is called "dry pack." First, rinse and hull the berries. Slice them in halves or thirds then toss them with a quarter-cup of sugar for every cup of berries. Let them stand for thirty minutes or so until the sugar draws out the juice, then ladle berries and juice into freezer containers or plastic bags. If you use bags, suck out extra air to draw the liquid up over the berries (remember, freezer burn is not your friend). Freeze them first in muffin tins or washed yogurt cups for handy, pre-measured berry packs.

If you want just a few berries at a time or plan on using your harvest for making preserves later, individually quick-freeze them. Berries frozen this way don't keep as long but are less mushy when thawed than sliced and packed berries.

Choose the ripest berries, rinse them, remove the hulls and drain on paper towels. Lay them one berry thick on a baking sheet and freeze for four hours, then transfer to freezer bags. For an elegant touch, use them as ice cubes in lemonade, iced tea and mixed drinks.

To use the, start simply. Strawberries are best that way because it lets their flavor shine through. Their flavor, after all, is the reason you're using them, right?

In most recipes, you can use fresh or frozen--the flavor preserves well. The choice is usually one of availability and use. You don't want to dip a mushy thawed frozen berry in chocolate, for instance, and it would be a shame to use a glorious fresh berry available for too few weeks of the year in a frozen puree. You can use either in the suggestions that follow unless otherwise specified.

Take advantage of a few fresh ones from your stash and make a decadent treat: chocolate-dipped strawberries. Even this guest-impressing version is easy enough for kids to make. It gets a double dose of chocolate: dipped in one kind and drizzled with another. You can prepare them ahead; they'll keep for a day refrigerated.

Strawberry Charmers

  • 1 1/2 cup milk or dark chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
  • 2 pints fresh strawberries, washed and dried

Rinse and dry the strawberries.

Melt each color of chip in a separate microwave-safe bowl. For the base coat, dip and swirl half of the berries in one type of chocolate and half in the other and lay them to dry on a sheet of waxed paper.

Next, add the flair. For marbleized berries dip a toothpick in contrasting chocolate and incorporate swirls and other designs into the original layer before it hardens. For a raised pattern of drizzles, put the remaining melted chocolate in a small plastic bag (each color in its own), snip a tiny hole in one corner and squeeze a rivulet of chocolate over the berries. Both methods look as good as they taste: irresistibly incredible.

For a simple dessert or brunch treat toss fresh berries with orange juice or triple sec. Blend fresh or frozen ones with bananas and yogurt for a delicious and healthful shake. To perk up your morning yogurt without adding tons of sugar, mix a few strawberries with a teaspoon of sugar, mash them with a fork and stir them into plain yogurt.

Add 1/4 cup of sugar to a cup of sliced berries, let them sit for ten minutes to draw out the juices, then spoon them over pancakes or waffles. Combine fresh or frozen whole berries with cubed pineapple for a fruit salad that's the perfect way to start or end a meal.

Strawberries are a natural for fruity desserts. For a simple mousse, puree two cups of strawberries with 1/4 cup of sugar and then stir in 1/2 cup of sour cream. Fold in 1 1/2 cups whipped topping, pour into serving dishes and freeze until it is firm.

Strawberry shortcake is a classic, of course, but strawberries are also a delicious topping for shortbread, lemon or sugar cookies and butter cake.

For a between-course palate cleanser or between-meal snack, drizzle a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over a cup of sliced berries--the sweet acidity of the vinegar brings out the best in the berries--no, really. Try it and you'll become a believer.

On your next picnic, serve strawberries with a pot of honey and chopped toasted nuts or chocolate shavings. Dip the berries in it the honey and then roll them in the nuts, chocolate or both if you like to live on the edge.

A perfect dessert after a heavy meal is a strawberry sorbet: bursting with strawberry flavor, but light, and not too sweet.

Strawberry Sorbet

  • 4 cups sliced strawberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup triple sec, optional Zest from one lemon

Combine the strawberries and sugar and let the mixture sit for at least 30 minutes to draw out the juices. Stir in the lemon juice and triple sec, if you're using it, then puree the mixture in a blender or food processor. Add the lemon zest.

Pour the puree into a freezer-safe, glass baking dish and freeze until it is solid. It will keep for a week in the freezer if you cover it with plastic wrap to keep out freezer odors. When you're ready to serve it, thaw for 10-15 minutes on the countertop and then use a large spoon to scrape the softened sorbet around the edges into a cup, bowl, or wineglass. If you want it soft all at once, let it thaw for 20 minutes and then chop the softened sorbet into blendable-sized chunks with a knife. Process it in a blender or food processor until it's smooth. Put the now-soft sorbet back into the freezer for at least thirty minutes before serving.

Strawberries are also good for your skin, although modern folks won't go to the extreme of a Napoleanic woman who added twenty-two pounds of crushed strawberries to every bath to keep her skin soft.

Wow. That's a lot of picking. Or maybe it's just not very many baths.

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