Short and sweet: Make the most of local strawberries
That the strawberry season spans from February through, well, December.
That the required pairing with said berries is copious amounts of sugar to "bring out" their natural sweetness. And that a sturdy fork is always necessary in any mashing maneuver to tame their bred-for-the-road firmness.
Pity those people.
And then get in on the real strawberry season -- a season so frustratingly short that it should never be taken lightly. Not here in the Pacific Northwest, where our strawberries are considered the culinary equivalent to precious gems. That's because our berries have been bred for flavor, color, and juiciness, not travel.
They don't keep as long as those sturdier jet-lagged varieties, however. Which means that from a period typically beginning sometime around early June, and rarely extending beyond the second week of July, real strawberry lovers lucky enough to live this neck of the woods are thinking, breathing, and (of course!) eating real strawberries.
There's nothing you can do to alter nature's cycle. So you'll just have to make the most of it.
I'm including some fresh- eating recipes to get you started, or perhaps to simply head you in a new direction in your ongoing search for ways to appreciate our wonderful berries while they're available.
Food preservers, of course, have an edge. They can extend the season of the treasured strawberry all the way into next winter and beyond, with just a bit of effort in the next few weeks.
It doesn't have to be extreme. Freezing berries (that you've simply rinsed, dried, and hulled) in single layers (with or without a coating of sugar) on cookie sheets, then packing them into freezer containers and tossing them back into the freezer, will capture that intense berry flavor up for to 12 months.
Then you've got a cache of flavor-packed gems to toss into your morning blender drink, or to whip up a fabulous berry puree.
Also within the freezer berry genre, consider batches of my strawberry daiquiri base. Actually, even without the booze (which you have to glug in after the fact), it's a fantastic refresher all summer long, so make plenty of it.
I find it works delightfully well in smoothies or as an intense strawberry sorbet. I've run it so many times over the years that I'm relegating it to my website for future access. Go to www.janrd.com and click on my blog where it hangs out as my most recent post.
With just a slightly greater time commitment, you can assemble uncooked strawberry jams for the freezer. If you've never done this, you can track down a recipe that will be packed in any liquid or powdered commercial pectin (you'll want to peruse the list of tips below before you get started).
And then, for the most treasured offering of all, there are strawberry preserves. The genuine deal. Succulently sweet berries, combined in a preserving kettle with sugar and lemon juice, and cooked just to the moment where they turn from sugared fruit to exquisite preserves.
The point is that now, when strawberries are finally ripe for the picking, it's time to bring them into your kitchen and celebrate their brief-but-exquisite impact on your palate and psyche.
From Michelle Obama's new book, "American Grown," here's a wonderful pie to consider while fresh seasonal strawberries are available.
It's creator, White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, states, "It is a well-known fact that President Obama loves pie, and in the pastry kitchen we rack our brains trying to create new combinations.
"This one is pretty classic, but you can replace the strawberries with blackberries, apples, peaches, or nectarines; the tart rhubarb goes well with all of those sweet fruits."
The White House's rhubarb strawberry crumble pie
1 prepared 10-inch pie crust
4 cups rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cups fresh strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, and hulled
1/2 cup turbinado sugar (see note)
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Crumble topping (recipe follows)
Place the prepared piecrust in the freezer for about 30 minutes to firm up the dough.
In a large bowl, gently combine the rhubarb and strawberries. Add the turbinado sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt and toss lightly.
Sift the flour over the top of the fruit mixture, stir in to evenly coat the fruit, and set aside.
Prepare the Crumble Topping.
Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the piecrust from the freezer.
Pour the fruit mixture into the crust and sprinkle evenly with the Crumble Topping. Place the pie dish on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment (for easier clean-up, because the filling has a tendency to boil over) and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the pie is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.
CRUMBLE TOPPING: In an electric mixer or food processor, combine 1 cup flour, 2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar, and 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats. Add 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter that has been well chilled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks, and mix or pulse briefly until clumbs form.
NOTE: Turbinado sugar is a raw sugar that is light brown with larger crystals than granulated sugar. It can be found in the baking section of a well-stocked supermarket.
Makes 1 10-inch pie.
Recipe from: "American Grown," by Michelle Obama.
Fresh strawberry mousse
4 cups sliced strawberries
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2- 2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped (or firm yogurt, nonfat okay, stirred until smooth)
Place the strawberries in a medium-sized saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until it looks like soup. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and set aside.
Without washing it first, use the same saucepan for this step. Combine the cornstarch, sugar, and lemon juice in the pan, and whisk until uniform.
Pour the still-hot strawberry soup back into the cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly. Return the pan to the stove, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick. (This should take about 5 minutes.) Remove from heat, and stir in the lemon rind.
Transfer the mixture back to the same bowl the strawberries had been in, and cool to room temperature. Puree until smooth in a food processor or blender, and return to the bowl. Cover tightly and chill until cold.
Fold in the whipped cream or yogurt and serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Recipe from "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest," by Mollie Katzen.
Based on my recipe for Peerless Red Raspberry Preserves, I'm happy to report that the same simple method for turning out luscious raspberry preserves through a fast-cook procedure does work with strawberries.
The resulting preserves are what I would describe as a "soft" gel, so if you really desire a very firm jam, this isn't the one. But it's a luscious preserve, with no commercial pectin giving the jam an unnatural firmness. And it's full of fresh strawberry flavor. All that and only 7 minutes of cooking.
The secret to perfection is the brief, fast cooking in small batches; this recipe cannot be doubled.
A wide, shallow pan (a 12-inch skillet is perfect) is essential, and it's important to make sure that about 1/4 of the berries are slightly underripe. There's more natural pectin in underripe berries, so this helps the jam gel.
Exquisite strawberry jam
4 heaping cups washed and hulled strawberries(1 pound, 6 ounces; to ensure a high pectin content, about 1/4 of the berries should be slightly underripe)
31/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup strained fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon butter
Coarsely chop the berries by placing small batches of them into the workbowl of a food processor and hitting the "pulse" button several times (you can also do this by hand, of course, but it goes pretty slow). You should have 31/2 cups of coarsely chopped berries.
In a large bowl, combine the berries with the sugar and lemon juice. Gently stir the mixture using a rubber spatula until the sugar is evenly distributed and the juices have begun to flow; let the mixture stand, stirring gently every 20 minutes or so, for at least 1 hour, but no longer than 2 hours.
Wash 4 half-pint jars. Keep hot until needed. Prepare lids as manufacturer directs.
Scrape the mixture into a 12-inch skillet or saute pan. Add the 1 teaspoon of butter (this controls the production of foam). Bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat, stirring constantly with a straight-ended wooden or nylon spatula. Adjust the heat downward to keep it from boiling over, and boil for 7 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove the skillet from the burner and let the jam settle for about 20 seconds; if any foam remains, skim it off. Ladle hot preserves into 1 hot jar at a time, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth. Attach lid. Fill and close remaining jars. Process in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes (at 1,000 to 3,000 feet, process for 15 minutes; 3,000 to 6,000 feet, for 20 minutes; above 6,000 feet, for 25 minutes).
This is going to be a very "lose" jam -- the kind that moves around in the jar slightly as its tilted. So if you don't like such a soft gel, you might as well steer clear of this recipe. There's also a stronger likelihood of fruit wanting to float toward the top of the jar, which creates a clear layer of jam at the bottom of the jar. Here's how I've managed to repair that phenomenon when it appears to be happening: About 3 hours after the jars have been removed from the boiling water canner, if you notice that that clear space at the bottom of the jars hasn't started to fill in with fruit, then you can begin a cycle of turning the jars on their heads for periods of 60 minutes at a time (gently flip the jars for 60 minutes, then gently flip them back onto their bottoms for 60 minutes; repeat several times during the day or night). This really does seem to work.
Makes 4 half-pints.
Tips for successful freezer jams from Oregon State University Extension Service:
Use 1- to 2-cup glass or rigid, plastic, freezer containers with tight-fitting lids. There is no need to sterilize containers or process the jam. But containers should be washed in hot, soapy water, or run through the dishwasher.
For best flavor (and to ensure a proper set) use fully ripe fruit.
Use one of the regular commercial pectins which includes recipes for freezer jam. Follow directions exactly and do not reduce the sugar.
For any given recipe that you're using, never substitute one pectin for another; they are not interchangeable and each is prepared a different way.
Do not double the recipes. Doubling recipes could result in a runny product, and it's hard to dissolve the large quantity of sugar, so sugar crystals could grow during storage, which would result in a grainy jam.
Measure accurately and follow directions exactly. The most common reason for failure is inaccurate measuring. Because freezer jam uses large quantities of sugar, it's a good idea to keep a record of each cup as it is measured.
Leave at least 1/2 inch head space to allow for expansion of the jam as it freezes.
After thawing and opening the container, store in the refrigerator. Remember, the product is not cooked so it will ferment and mold quickly if left at room temperature for extended periods of time.
For low sugar freezer jams, consider using a Ball canning product called "Fruit Jell -- Freezer Jam Pectin (check Bi-Mart, Wal-Mart, and Winco), and Sure-Jel Lite.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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