Saturday, June 04, 2005

Strawberries


Ripe & Ready To Pick

There is nothing like a strawberry. No one ever bites into something and says, "This tastes like a strawberry," unless it is a strawberry. But sadly, most strawberries today do not even taste like strawberries. As with so many other foods, they have been manipulated and modified so much that they only look pretty and travel well. Flavor is barely a consideration. I saw some strawberries for sale at a megamarket the other day that were literally so gigantic they just looked weird. And I bet they probably were tasteless.

Perhaps it is because of this lack of flavor that strawberries are often subjected to needless abuse in the kitchen. Even I once made a baked strawberry pie, complete with instant tapioca. I now realize this was a mean thing to do. A good strawberry should never be cooked. The exception, of course, is strawberry jam (which I adore), but I cringe each time I read a recipe that calls for more sugar than berries. Instead, try simply mashing a few very ripe strawberries with a fork and spreading them on a slice of toast or a warm scone. If you do decide to try your hand at making jam, be sure to include some underripe berries, as they are full of pectin and will help the jam to thicken.

One of my cookbooks claims that the strawberry is "America's favorite berry," and I think that everyone must have at least one vivid strawberry memory. Joe has reminisced more than once to me about the time, years ago, he and a friend accidentally walked into a formal, private party at a Miami yacht club. Despite being sunburned, windblown, and severely underdressed, he managed to procure a glass of champagne and pounce upon an enormous bowl of perfect strawberries without being noticed.

My most vivid strawberry memory is of strawberry pancakes, which our family must have eaten on dozens of weekend mornings during my childhood. They were very thin French pancakes (I suppose that technically they were probably crepes) liberally doused with melted butter, sprinkled with powdered sugar, covered with halved, just-picked strawberries from the backyard, and then sprinkled with yet more powdered sugar. They were not stacked, but were arranged neatly in a circle over a large dinner plate--thus ensuring maximum butter and sugar coverage. The pancake batter was mixed in the blender, and the recipe was so simple even my little brother was an expert at making them. They were cooked on a rectangular electric griddle, six at a time, and you knew exactly how much batter to pour out for each pancake because the griddle was clearly marked from years of using it for nothing but those pancakes.

The powdered sugar came out of an ingenious contraption I had completely forgotten about until today. It was a tall, white plastic thing with a small, airtight lid and was a combination storage container and server. I think it was Tupperware. You turned a little crank and perfectly sifted powdered sugar snowed out of the bottom and onto your plate. Because these pancakes were so thin, even a small person could eat a dozen of them in a sitting. When it wasn't strawberry season, we ate them with just the melted butter and powdered sugar--never with maple syrup.

Sliced strawberries served over really good French vanilla ice cream is a wonderful thing. And while I would not pass up a homemade strawberry shortcake if somebody handed me one, lately I have found myself becoming more and more of a purist when it comes to my garden bounty. In my opinion, the best way to savor a batch of luscious strawberries requires doing nothing more than making sure you have clean fingers and a plain white dish. Even chilling them seems to steal away some of their flavor.

Unfortunately, to find a good strawberry these days, you must look to your own garden or a farmer's market. And if you are going to eat only one food that is organically grown, make it strawberries. When grown commercially, strawberries are subjected to more herbicides, pesticides, and other poisons than any other food. Years ago I read that in one laboratory test, a single commercially cultivated strawberry was found to contain residue from 22 different toxic chemicals. That doesn't even seem possible. What is more ridiculous is that it is easy to grow delicious, organic strawberries--even on a large scale.

Anyone can raise their own strawberries. If you do not have a garden, you can buy a special strawberry planter and produce a decent little crop in about one square foot of space. My edible garden is made up of twenty-two 4' x 8' raised beds, and my current strawberry patch takes up one of the beds (plus some overflow I can't bear to pull up). It was started in 2001 with 25 plants I ordered from
Pinetree Garden Seeds: 15 Honeyoye and 10 Sparkle.

For planting and growing guidance, I turned to my trusted copy of Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening and Landscaping Techniques. I also amended the soil with natural rock powders and mulched with hay and lots of sheep manure (which I know makes everything I grow taste sweeter). I make sure the plants are well watered each August and September, which is when berry size for the next year's crop is determined. After a few hard frosts in late fall, I mulch the entire bed with a thick layer of hay and uncover it in early spring.

I have had no disease problems, and apart from a few bugs, the only real "pests" I have to contend with are the wild turtles. I have never seen a turtle run except when it was hurling itself toward a ripe strawberry. They are very sneaky, but I have caught more than one turtle nestled in my strawberry bed, happily munching away, berry pulp dripping out both sides of its mouth, so absorbed in its bliss that it was totally oblivious to my presence. Once I even busted a female turtle laying eggs in my garden.

Despite turtle attacks, last year I harvested seven gallons of beautiful, delectable berries from that one plot. It was more than we could eat, and I froze many of them in single layers on baking sheets, and then packed them into plastic zipper freezer bags. Once the last berries were picked, I refreshed the bed by pulling out most of the plants so it will keep producing for a few more years.

I also started a new strawberry bed this year. I was at a Garden Club plant sale in April and could not resist buying three plastic grocery bags bags that were each simply labeled Super Strawberries 7/$1.00. They had obviously been dug up from a club member's garden that morning, and now they are flourishing in mine. I can't wait to taste the first harvest.

In the meantime, my old plot has fewer plants this year, but they are loaded with sweet, ripening berries. Their thick fragrance rises up to tantalize me each time I walk by the bed. Today was the first real harvest--I picked well over a quart of berries and only a few had bite marks. (The chickens will get these--no strawberry goes to waste around here.) Today was also the hottest day of the year so far--90 degrees in the shade and very humid. It is too hot to cook, and nothing sounds good anyway. But I've just come up with a perfect idea for dinner. All I need to do is wash my hands and grab a plain white dish.

* Footnote: I kid you not--half an hour after I finished writing this post I went out to water the garden and found a turtle three feet from my strawberry bed. First one I've caught this season. I shrieked "Oh my god!" and it ducked into its shell. I then picked it up, marched across the farmyard, and deposited it just outside the gate into the hayfield, pointing away from the garden. It probably wasn't far enough, but I was in a hurry. I knew I should have left those bite-marked berries as decoys.

9 comments:

  1. Ok, now I am totally inspired. I never buy strawberries in the store because they do taste horrible, just like you said. I am now inspired to grow more of my own. I'm headed to the nursery anyway today and I will definitely get more strawberry plants since I am left with just two small ones from 4 years ago. Your writing is fantastic!!!

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  2. I was reading your article on strawberries,which I love to eat especially if they are homegrown. But, I was wondering if you have other types of berries on your farm? Blackberries are prevalent in California. Do they grow well in the midwest or is it too hot?

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  3. The picture of a turtle hurling itself at a strawberry just cracked me up! I don't think we have those problems in New England (or do we?), certainly not in my little city garden. I planted a whole crop of strawberries this year, all leftovers at a garden center. I've only gotten a couple this year of course, but they were delicious and perfect--nothing quite like a sun-warmed, scarlet strawberry, especially when you only have one! They're a type I've never heard of--Ozark Beauty--maybe from down your way?

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  4. Hi scoop,
    Thanks so much. And yes, you definitely should plant some more strawberries. One can never have too many!

    Hi jet,
    Yes, we are fortunate that quite a few types of berries will grow here. The wild blackberries are my favorite. We also have wild black raspberries, mulberries, and wild blueberries. Many people in the area also cultivate blueberries. And I just harvested my first red raspberry crop this year (after 11 years of trying)--yum!

    Hi greengage,
    Welcome to the farm! So glad I could make you laugh. Oh you would not believe how fast those turtles can move. It's unreal. I wrote this post last month and have had several more run-ins with them since, including finding one laying her eggs just outside the garden. For a while there, I was finding turtles everywhere--including right in the middle of the strawberry patch, just as I had described. And they are so rude--they take one bite from a berry and then move on to the next and the next and the next. . . At one point, I even did a little websearch for turtle recipes. . . : )

    I sure hope you don't have them in your city garden, but you can't be too sure. They are very sneaky.

    Yes, I believe Ozark Beauty is a Missouri variety. I think I even grew some several years ago. Good luck with your berries--next year will be a much bigger harvest! : )

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  5. You are SO true about the vivid stawberry memory. I was brought up in Bombay, India. We didnt get strawberries back then in 1980s(now you get all the mutated ones...) I remember an uncle of mine who visited us from Delhi and brought strawberries for me and my sisters. They were so tasty!! They were awesome...this is my 1st vivid memory of strawberries. :)

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  6. I like your blog and I admire you for making such an enormous and courageous change in your life. However, I really think you should share your strawberries with the turtles. I'm sure they work hard too.

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  7. I have tried and love many of your recipes on this blog. This summer I am trying to be adventurous and pick my own strawberries at my neighbor's farm to make preserves. Do you have any time-honored recipes for berry preserves? Many thanks!!

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  8. I just found your post on Strawberries---I'm growing some for the first time, and I'm having a heck of a time with birds eating them. A fake owl doesn't do anything to deter them, and they even peck at the berries through the bird netting I laid over the plants. Any ideas?
    Thanks,
    Tommy

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  9. I just read your story about your Sunday strawberry pancakes, and I was hoping to get the recipe. Would you mind sharing and posting that recipe?

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