Produce of the Week - Strawberries
sponsored by Coleman Farms
There's a delicious ambiguity about Strawberries: they're a fruit, and fruit is something we associate with Summer; but they traditionally start to appear about now, months earlier than most fruit - berries, particularly - so we associate also them with Spring. 'Traditionally appear about now', because in the last ten years or so, new cold-hardy varieties have been introduced that make it possible to harvest strawberries year around somewhere in the US, and you'll find them in the Farmers' Market as early as February. Sometimes these early berries are quite good, but in my experience they tend to be hard and relatively insipid, without the aroma, acidity or sweetness typical of later berries, often instead tasting something like an unripe peach, or slightly like an orange.
You can eat strawberries as they come, and you'll often find them presented together with other fruit (usually in pieces) as nibbles. The tartness in strawberries lets them combine well with dairy, the 'creams', in particular - ice, sour or whipped. There's strawberry ice cream, of course, but given the hassle of making ice cream, it's the rare Farmers' Market berry that ends up incorporated in ice cream. Topping is something else, though - sliced, or slightly mashed very ripe berries can turn any ice cream into 'strawberry'; vanilla is probably the natural choice, but strawberries go well with chocolate, too, or caramel. The other creams often appear with strawberries in confections such as pastries, strawberry short cake or cheesecake.
There are also the standard fruity uses: fruit salads, fruit smoothies, fruit cocktail. But there are other less common uses, in fruit soup, dressings, which again make use of the sweet/sour character of Strawberries, and in baking - tarts, pies, cobblers and crumbles come to mind - where Strawberries can be used by themselves, but, mixed with other fruit - it might be rhubarb, nectarines or apples - give a result that's like having a whole new kind of fruit. The wateriness of Strawberries needs to be considered when using them in baking, of course.
One of the features of a local market is the relatively frequent mismatch between supply and demand. How this affects marketing depends on the produce. At one extreme are such things as nuts, dried fruit and preserved olives, which are saleable for about a year; what doesn't get sold one week can go back on the stand the next, so supply, and prices, are fairly constant. At the other extreme are berries, which have a shelf life of a few days. If demand is up, or supply down, you'll want to shop early to be sure of getting some, and you may have to pay more. But if supply is up you'll find more berries at more vendors, and can often get specially good buys, particularly just before the market closes.
Your berries still have a short shelf life, though, so what to do with them? While you can always increase your shortcake and smoothie consumption, you can also cook them a bit to make sauce or jam. For smallish amounts of berries - a pint or less - this is particularly easy in a microwave oven, if you use one. You'd have to try hard to get the fruit/sugar mixture to scorch, and you can get away with just the occasional stirring, so you can do something interesting, like clean cupboards, while the fruit cooks.
The only trick is preventing the stuff from boiling over - you want to use partial power, the actual setting depending on how much fruit you're cooking and the total power available in your make of oven - and you want to put the bowl with the fruit in a second, larger bowl or deep plate, to catch any eventual overflow. Use microwave safe ceramic or glass bowls, clean and slice the berries, and put a bit of sugar (start with a heaping tablespoon for 2/3 cup fruit) on top, put everything in the microwave and set it going, watching and experimenting to get a useful power setting. You'll also have to experiment to get a total cooking time, which will vary in any case with the amount of fruit and the particular use you have in mind for the result - slightly cooked for syrupy uses, cooked a bit more for ice cream topping, or pretty well reduced for jam. Whatever consistency you end up with, the product will be utterly unlike a commercial one, much fruiter and far less sweet.
Shelf life (refrigerated) will depend on how much you've reduced the mixture. I don't have any experience with keeping this kind of jam for more than about two days, though, since it's been eaten by then.