The first full month of summer has arrived, and with it, the prospect of strawberry season.
You might think that there is no particular season for strawberries now, because we can get fresh strawberries year-round at the grocery store. However, we still wait for Island strawberries with eager anticipation.
I will not tell you that I use only local foods in season. I do not eschew all foods that are sourced outside of Prince Edward Island because they aren’t grown or harvested in this province, nor am I above buying imported versions of certain crops when local ones are out of season. I’m not about to give up oranges, avocados or shrimp; I like to have salad greens and cucumbers in winter.
None of that dampens my enthusiasm for Island grown food in season and for fresh-picked local strawberries in early July. They are more than just good-looking red berries, although they are that. Varieties of strawberries grown here for local consumption are juicy and sweet in a way that those grown for shipping to far-off markets cannot be. They can be more fragile, more delectable, precisely because they don’t have to endure all the handling, jostling and transportation that their well-travelled cousins do.
We have to respect that when handling them, starting with picking them in the garden or U-pick fields. Pick selectively, avoiding overripe berries that have lost their shine, and leaving those with white tips or sides behind until the next picking, as they will not ripen after having been picked. Put filled boxes in a shady spot to keep them from overheating while you pick more.
Whether you intend to eat strawberries fresh or process them further for freezing or making jam, pick only as many as you can use while they are fresh.
They are at their best on the day they are picked. When I pick strawberries to freeze or make jam, I don’t always have time to do so the same day they are picked, but I do make a point of using them within a day or two of picking; it’s a shame get fresh berries and then let them deteriorate.
Picked berries need to be kept cool, preferably under refrigeration, for short-term storage. If there is not enough space in the refrigerator to accommodate them, they need to be held somewhere that stays relatively cool, such as a basement room. I like to bring them to room temperature before serving, for optimum flavour and texture.
Wash fresh berries just before serving them or preparing them for freezing or making into jam. Dip them in a basin or sink full of cool water and drain immediately in a colander. Only after they are washed should the caps be removed and discarded.
A Food Guide serving of strawberries consists of 125 mL or 1/2 cup of berries. Arguably the healthiest and easiest way to use fresh strawberries is to eat them whole, with no additions. Imagine new ways to eat fresh strawberries in season at every possible occasion. Eat them by themselves as a snack or dessert or add to breakfast cereal, Greek-style yogurt, cottage cheese or salads. Make a simple fruit salad by adding sliced bananas or oranges to halved strawberries. Serve berries with crackers and cheese or with assorted nuts and squares of good chocolate. Garnish cake, custard or pudding with strawberry slices.
People like to occasionally gild the lily by combining strawberries with sugar or cream, or even a little orange liqueur. To draw the juices out of the berries, halve or slice them, and sprinkle with a little sugar. Osmosis does the rest. Another way to create juicy red strawberry topping for ice cream, yogurt or shortcake is to crush them and add sugar to taste.
You can freeze strawberries whole and unsugared for serving later, or making jam when you have time. If you intend to make jam with frozen berries, then measure them prior to freezing, and label accordingly. Alternately, you can freeze them on trays until firm, and them bag them for freezer storage so that they will not freeze as a clump. That will permit you to measure the amount of frozen berries that you need for the jam recipe.
It is generally agreed that frozen berries have better colour and flavour when sugar is added before freezing. The old rule of thumb was to add around 175 mL (3/4 cup) of sugar to each 1 L (4 cups) of prepared berries. Since we are more motivated to limit sugar consumption, I’m going to reduce the sugar a bit next time I freeze berries. I think I’ll start with 75 to 125 mL (1/3 to 1/2 cup) per litre (4 cups) of sliced berries and see how that tastes.
Whether you grow your own or buy them, just get enough to eat fresh or stock up and preserve some for later, Island strawberries are a treat, and it’s worth making the effort to get some and enjoy them while the season is here.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.