Making the Most of Strawberry Season

First, a Little History

Originally, strawberries were wild things. Their unique flavor and sweetness led to their cultivation. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson grew Alpine Strawberries, a European import, among other varieties and shared the seeds with his friends. The plants were hardy and delicious, but the berries were tiny. Jefferson remarked that "100 would fill half a pint." Wild strawberries grew freely in abandoned fields and woods and were gathered by Indians and colonists alike.

A basket of strawberries

Our modern strawberries are the descendants of an 18th-century cross between large, juicy Chilean strawberries and the more flavorful native Virginia or Scarlet Strawberry. Monticello's Twinleaf Journal posts an excellent article on the early cultivation of strawberries in America.

A Fresh Strawberry Menu for a Summer Evening

Although it's a time-honored tradition to put away pints of jam for winter gifts, it can be equally satisfying to create a menu featuring strawberries in all their field-fresh glory.

To Begin:

Strawberry Spring Rolls
A sweet, savory, and low-calorie (88 per roll) appetizer.

 

Strawberry Dipping Sauce:
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) sliced, stemmed strawberries
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons Vietnamese fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

Spring Rolls:
3/4 pound cooked, shelled shrimp
3/4 teaspoon seasoned rice vinegar
8 spring roll wrappers
16 mint leaves
16 cilantro sprigs
3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) quartered, stemmed strawberries
1 cup peeled, seeded cucumber cut into 2 x 1/4 x 1/8-inch strips

To make Strawberry Dipping Sauce:

In blender or food processor, puree strawberries, vinegar, oil, sugar, and fish sauce until smooth. Add chili flakes; blend until chili flakes are mixed in but still visible.

To Make Spring Rolls:
In bowl, toss shrimp with vinegar; set aside. Dip 1 wrapper into very hot water for a few seconds until soft and flexible; blot on towel to remove excess water. Place 2 mint leaves, 2 cilantro sprigs, 3 pieces strawberry, 3 shrimp and 3 cucumber strips in a line down the center of wrapper. Fold bottom over filling, fold in sides and roll up into tight cylinder. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 8 rolls. Serve each roll with 1 tablespoon strawberry Dipping Sauce. Tip: Rolls may be made up to 8 hours ahead. Place in single layer on plastic wrap-lined pan, cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until needed.
Recipe courtesy of MedicalNewsServices.com

Spinach Salad with Strawberries

The contrasting flavors and colors of the salad and its dressing make for a memorable beginning.

Salad Ingredients:
5 cups fresh torn spinach, about 1 pound
2 cups sliced strawberries
2 ounces Gouda cheese, cut into thin strips
1/3 cup toasted pecans

Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons honey*
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Preparation:
Toss together spinach, strawberries, cheese, and toasted pecans. Whisk together dressing; pour over spinach mixture, and toss just before serving. Serves 6.
*Please note: very young children should not have honey.
This recipe is from About.com's U.S. Southern Cuisine site.

For the main course, grill your choice of fish, chicken, or pork and serve with

Honey Strawberry Salsa

Ingredients
1-1/2 cups diced red bell pepper
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup diced fresh tomato
1/4 cup chopped Anaheim pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon tequila (optional)
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chili pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Combine ingredients in glass container; mix well. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to blend. Serve on grilled fish or chicken.
Recipe courtesy of the National Honey Board

Of course, strawberries are a dessert in and of themselves. However, adding chocolate to a dessert is rarely a bad move. Consider finishing off the evening with Anniversary Strawberries or Chocolate Fudge Strawberry Shortcake. Both recipes are from Cooks.com.

Anniversary Strawberries

1 and 2/3 cups vanilla milk chips
2 tbsp. shortening, divided
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 pints fresh strawberries, rinsed, patted dry and chilled

Cover tray with waxed paper. In medium bowl place vanilla chips and 1 tablespoon shortening. Microwave on HIGH 1 minute. Stir vigorously until chips are melted and mixture is smooth. If necessary, microwave on HIGH an additional 30 seconds at a time, just until smooth when stirred. Holding by top, dip lower 2/3 of each strawberry into vanilla mixture; shake gently to remove excess. Place on prepared tray; refrigerate until coating is firm, at least 30 minutes.

In clean bowl, repeat microwave procedure with chocolate chips; dip lower third of each berry. Refrigerate until firm. Cover and refrigerate leftovers. Yield: about 2-3 dozen berries.

Chocolate Fudge Strawberry Shortcake

6 oz. butter
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
6 eggs
3 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips

1 pint heavy cream, whipped with ½ cup powdered sugar and 2 tsp vanilla
1 quart fresh, sweet strawberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 (9") cake pans. Line pans with parchment or wax paper. Melt butter and unsweetened chocolate over low heat and allow to cool. Whisk together eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla until just combined. Stir in flour and chocolate chips. Add cooled, melted butter and chocolate mixture. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Do not over bake. Cool cakes in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and cool on cake racks.

Place one brownie cake on serving platter and spread with thick layer of whipped cream (about 1/3 of the total). Top with whole or sliced strawberries. Put 1/3 whipped cream over berries. Add second brownie layer and spread with remaining whipped cream. Top with whole dipped berries (see above recipe) and chocolate curls. Refrigerate until serving.

You can find more berry recipes in Berries: A Cookbook by Robert Berkley.

Growing Strawberries

Interested in growing berries in your backyard? These books and Web sites can give you useful information on choosing the best plants and growing them to their full potential:

All About Growing Fruits, Berries & Nuts by the editorial staff of Ortho Books.
"Grow fresh fruit and nuts in your own garden. Complete instructions for over 100 varieties, selected for all parts of the country, are included here. You will also learn how to get the most fruit out of small gardens, and how to use fruit trees as ornamentals."

The Backyard Berry Book: A Hands-on Guide to Growing Berries, Brambles, and Vine Fruit in the Home Garden by Stella Otto. The Complete Guide to Growing Berries and Grapes by Louise Riotte.
This organic gardening guide discuss how to prepare the ground, plant, trellis, cultivate, protect, harvest, and winter over many kinds of berries. Includes recipes.

Fruits and Berries by Susan McClure.
Part of Rodale's Successful Organic Gardening series.

Movable Harvests: Fruits, Vegetables, Berries: The Simplicity & Bounty of Container Gardens by Chuck Crandall & Barbara Crandall.
Even those gardening in small, wee spaces can enjoy fresh berries, vegetables, and fruits by planting in containers.

Taylor's Guide to Fruits and Berries edited by Roger Holmes.
"In this Taylor's Guide, experts introduce readers to the best varieties, explain how to grow them, and show in words and photos how fruits and berries can be incorporated into any garden."

On the Web:

Strawberry Growing Guide
http://www.organicgardening.com/feature/0,7518,s1-2-10-573,00.html

Strawberries and More
http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/strawberries/

Pick-Your-Own Strawberry Farms in Virginia

Belvedere Plantation
http://www.belvedereplantation.com/

Westmoreland Berry Farm
http://www.westmorelandberryfarm.com/

Virginia Grown
http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown/

Strawberry Festivals

Virginians celebrate their strawberries both in the mountains and at the beach. Why not take a trip for a day of strawberry celebration? The Delaplane Strawberry Festival will be held May 23 & 24 (Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend) in 2009, at Sky Meadows State Park. The Pungo Strawberry Festival will be held the same weekend in Virginia Beach.