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Alan Tangren: Let strawberries brighten your meals

Alan Tangren
Columnist

Dear Alan: When is the best time to look for locally grown strawberries?

Strawberries seem to be available year ‘round, but wait to buy them until after Memorial Day, they will be much riper and sweeter. Strawberries thrive in our foothills and nearby valley locations, and we can access organically grown berries in prime condition from local growers.

Strawberries, like other fruits of summer, are a disappointment if they are not allowed to ripen fully before harvest. Fruit grown in Southern California or Florida, shipped to distant markets in the winter and early spring, are harvested well before they have reached red, luscious, juicy maturity.

Local growers harvest strawberries from the beginning of June, when they are most abundant, through the rest of the summer.

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Local growers harvest strawberries from the beginning of June, when they are most abundant, through the rest of the summer.

Strawberries grow wild in many parts of the world, but our cultivated varieties are descendants of two native American varieties.

The wild Virginia strawberry grows from the Gulf of Mexico to the Dakotas and beyond. Early plant explorers brought them to botanical collections France around 1600. The fruits were small but very tasty.

On the west coast we have the wild “sand” strawberry, that grows on beaches from coastal Alaska to Chile. They have very large fruit, pale yellow in color, with a very mild flavor of pineapple. They finally made it to France around 1700.

Plant breeders found the two species were compatible and started cross-breeding to bring out their most desirable qualities, and began producing plants with large, bright red, flavorful fruits about a hundred years later. So the berries we enjoy today are relatively new in plant history.

At the market look for berries that have a bright, uniformly red skin, with no signs of white shoulders. The green calix or hull at the stem end should be vibrant green and not wilted.

The size of the berry depends on the variety, plant maturity and time of year, so it is not a good indicator of flavor. But medium-sized berries are easiest to work with when serving whole or sliced.

Ripe strawberries are very perishable and should be used as soon as possible. If you must store them for a day or two, gently empty the basket onto a baking sheet lined with paper towels, space them so they do not touch, and refrigerate without covering.

Don’t keep them in their basket or they will get moldy quickly. Don’t wash until just before using.

The simplest way to serve strawberries is to rinse off any sand or grit and pile them into a bowl. Invite your guests to dip by hand into individual bowls of sugar and cream.

If you are using strawberries in a prepared dish, they will have to be hulled. There are several styles of tweezer-like tools available at Tess’, or use the tip of a vegetable peeler to pry out the stems.

The idea of strawberry shortcake is particularly American. Brilliant in its simplicity, the combination of crunchy, rich biscuit, juicy sweetened berries and whipped cream can’t be beat.

The French like to make layers sponge cake, often flavored with a liquor syrup, filled with whipped cream and strawberries,

Strawberries combine well with fruits that have a little acid to perk up the flavor, such as rhubarb and oranges. Add a little orange juice to your sliced strawberries, or make strawberry-orange sherbet. Combine strawberries and rhubarb in cobblers, crisps and pies.

A sprinkle of balsamic vinegar or a bath in red wine can add interest to sliced berries that are not completely ripe.

Strawberries Romanoff are a little fancier. Marinate sliced strawberries in orange juice and orange liquor for several hours in the fridge. Serve topped with whipped cream.

Make an easy fresh strawberry sauce by puréeing the fruit in a food processor with sugar to taste and a squeeze of lemon juice until smooth.

To get maximum juice from strawberries for cakes or shortcake, slice and toss with a little sugar and let stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes. You can also purée some of the berries to add back to the sliced ones.

Strawberry Fool

The English have perfected this way to combine strawberries and cream. I think the name refers to the fact that anyone can make it!

Remove the hulls from a pound of berries after rinsing and draining. Mash the berries with a fork or pulse in a food processor to make a chunky purée. Add sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, according to taste.

Beat 1-1/2 cups of chilled whipping cream to medium peaks and fold into the berries. Add a few drops of vanilla extract if you wish. Spoon into a clear glass bowl or pile individual servings into tall wine glasses. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled. Serve with store bought or homemade sugar cookies.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.


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