- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

After experimenting with three methods of drying fruit to make a fancy recipe requiring dried strawberries, I have one thing to say. Who cares? Actually, there is something else to say about having spent $9 on strawberries that tasted boring at best, but we won’t go into that now.

Grower Linda Dullam laughed at that story. Perhaps because she is surrounded by them, she assumes everyone knows that when it comes to strawberries, the less fussing, the better.

“The best way to eat them is straight,” Mrs. Dullam said, “although I’m a great strawberry dipper.” Chocolate is her dipping weapon of choice.

Cooking is OK, especially for jams and jellies, but strawberries are just about perfect on their own, and only a fool tampers with beautiful ripe strawberries at the peak of sweetness. “Particularly this time of year, strawberries are like grapes. Their sugar comes up with sunshine,” Mrs. Dullam said.

Yet there is one cooking method that Mrs. Dullam, a California grower who, at times, is buried in strawberries, says she loves. That is steeping the berries for strawberry vinegar, which she keeps in a vat in her refrigerator.

To make it, she fills a 2-gallon jar with lightly rinsed strawberries, stems and all. (This will be about 6 pounds.) She mashes them down just a bit and pours in enough white distilled vinegar to cover.

The jar is closed tightly but is not refrigerated as it sits for 10 days on her kitchen counter. Then she separates the pulp from the juices. The pulp is discarded and the juices filtered through Mrs. Dullam brings the juices to a low boil with sugar to taste (11/2 cups or so). When the sugar is dissolved (about 1 minute), she turns off the heat and lets it cool to room temperature. Covered tightly, the vinegar will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 year. Mrs. Dullam pours it into salad dressings and sauces for fish, chicken and meat. “It is the most wonderful recipe,” she said.

In fact, of all the recipes that were submitted to last week’s 22nd annual California Strawberry Festival cooking competition in Oxnard, Calif., near Los Angeles, this is Mrs. Dullam’s favorite.

While working on this year’s festival cookbook, she tasted her share of recipes. As in other years, this year’s festival paid tribute to the multimillion-dollar industry in Oxnard and Ventura counties, where more than 8,500 acres are planted with strawberries. (California produces more than 80 percent of the strawberries consumed in the United States.) The festival draws recipes from around the country.

Another of Mrs. Dullam’s favorites is for a strawberry salsa that she serves with brie quesadillas. She also serves it with pork loin and grilled fish.

We are fond of strawberries because they are delicious, not because of any associated health benefits, but strawberries are actually quite good for us.

A study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry said a chemical found in abundance in strawberries can induce programmed self-destruction of human cancer cells. This substance, called quercetin, also inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells.

While this will probably not convince anyone to eat strawberries, though it certainly should, it is another reason to enjoy them.

Mrs. Dullam won’t reveal how many acres of strawberries she and her husband, John, farm. “That’s like asking a woman her weight,” she said. However, she does admit that as a grower, her strawberry source is exceptional.

She contends that it is easy for the average consumer to buy strawberries that are sweet. The way to determine sweetness is to taste, which seems to mean farmers markets or fruit stands because most supermarkets frown on snacking in the aisles.

However, visual cues worth noting when selecting strawberries include: The little green stems should look fresh; the berries should be shiny; and the seeds on the berries should lay flat, not popped up. Seed pop-up can be a sign that the berries are past their prime.

If you have ever fallen in love with a particular variety of berry, then, as the love songs say, get over it. Berry varieties are constantly changing, Mrs. Dullam said. “There are different varieties, many developed in California. A variety is really only good for 10 years. Then it starts to do odd things like throw off albino fruit. It’s an ever-evolving plant form.”

Her farm, for example, grows a plant with the unromantic name No. 269. When the number proved confusing to customers at the family fruit stand last year, Mrs. Dullam said, she made up a new, less Orwellian name. “I called them Millennium,” which seemed easier for consumers to understand.

Produce evolution is a scientific endeavor meant to improve the fruit for better flavor, transport and pest control. Although not everyone loves every variety, if we don’t like what we’re getting, we can always wait 10 years or travel to another part of the country because varieties grown in California are different from those grown in other sections of the country. So it would be possible to wander the country never repeating the same strawberry twice. This is not a bad idea, if you stop to think about it.

In lieu of strawberry travel, we can select the sweetest berries possible and keep them fresh. The best way to keep them fresh (and Mrs. Dullam is astonished that this is not common knowledge) is not to store them on the kitchen counter, where they will last only a day or two, but to seal them in airtight plastic containers lined with paper towels.

Do not remove the stems, and do not wash them before storing. Refrigerate the strawberries for up to 10 days. Let them come to room temperature, and wash them just before serving.

Strawberries can, of course, be frozen, but the texture will never be the same as fresh. Such berries should be reserved for drinks or sauces.

Mrs. Dullam fills her blender with berries and 1 tablespoon of sugar to help maintain the color (no sugar, and the liquid will turn pink, rather than remain red, when defrosted). She fills resealable plastic freezer bags with the liquid, squeezes out as much air as possible and freezes the juice for use in smoothies (just break off a piece and blend it with a banana), as well for pancakes and waffles. While you are dining, take this informative quiz from the California Strawberry Festival.

STRAWBERRY TRIVIA: True or false?

Eight strawberries have more vitamin C than a single orange.

True. Strawberries also have only 50 calories per serving, no cholesterol and 4 grams of dietary fiber. They provide 20 percent of the recommended daily allowance of folic acid, which helps reduce the risks of heart disease and birth defects.

Strawberries were a popular dessert in ancient Greece and Rome.

False. Although strawberries were eaten by those early civilizations, wild strawberries were first used as early as 234 B.C. for medicinal purposes. The strawberries that became popular in America in the 1700s were brought from Europe. By the 1850s, strawberries were common at social gatherings and called upon in numerous recipes.

Strawberries don’t grow in all U.S. climates.

False. Each state in North America grows some strawberries, although California is the biggest producer. On average, each acre produces about 21 tons of berries.

Strawberries got their name from the baskets in which they were collected.

Probably false. Although there is no real answer to the question of where strawberries got their name, many people believe the myth that the heart-shaped berries were named in the 19th century by English children who picked the fruit, strung them on grass straws and sold them. “Straws of berries” are now sold as “baskets of berries,” but the name strawberry remains.

Another theory is that the name was derived from the 19th-century practice of placing straw around the growing berry plants to protect the ripening fruit.

Still others say the appearance of the fruit within the plant inspired the name. Strawberry plants have short roots and a short stem. Leaves grow from the stem in groups of three, so the fruit seems to be strewn among the leaves. The original strewberry therefore became known as the strawberry.

The strawberry belongs to the genus fragraria in the rose family, along with apples and plums.

Strawberries are not true berries.

True. Botanists do not classify the strawberry as a berry. True berries, such as blueberries and cranberries, have seeds inside. The fleshy part of the strawberry, however, has its dry, yellow “seeds” on the outside, each of which is technically considered a separate fruit.

Strawberry shortcake was invented in France for the court of King Louis XIV, and it was illegal for commoners to eat it.

False. American Indians pounded strawberries into their traditional cornmeal bread. Discovering the Indians’ bread, Colonists decided to create their own version, which became the strawberry shortcake we know and love. Strawberries were popular with French royalty, however. Charles V ordered 1,200 strawberry plants for the royal gardens of the Louvre.

Dried strawberries are delicious.

Not really, except to people who have just hiked 10 miles and are desperate for something to eat that is also light to carry. So skip the dried and go for the real thing. The better the berry, the better the recipes that follow will taste.

Strawberry salsa

cup diced red onion

1 pint strawberries, sliced in 1/4-inch pieces (about 2 cups)

1 cup diced papaya

1 cup diced mango

1 1-inch jalapeno chili, seeded and finely diced

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

11/4 teaspoons salt

Soak red onion in ice water for 15 minutes, then drain and pat dry. Combine it with strawberries, papaya, mango, chili, vinegar and salt. Serve with cheese quesadillas, pork, chicken or fish. Makes about 2 cups.

Strawberry-spinach salad

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

cup olive oil

1 12-ounce package spinach, stems removed

4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

1 cups (about 8 ounces) sliced strawberries

Place pine nuts in dry frying pan over medium heat; toast, stirring frequently, until they just begin to turn golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

In small bowl, whisk together vinegar, salt, sugar, lots of freshly ground pepper and mustard. Pour olive oil into vinegar mixture in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly so that dressing is well-combined. In large serving bowl, toss spinach with dressing and then with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts.

Top with strawberries and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Strawberry-banana-pineapple smoothie

1 cup quartered strawberries

banana

cup pineapple chunks

cup pineapple juice

3/4 cup (8 ounces) nonfat strawberry yogurt

Strawberries and banana chunks soaked in lemon juice for garnish, optional

In blender, combine quartered strawberries, banana and pineapple chunks until liquefied. Add pineapple juice and yogurt, and blend until frothy, scraping down sides of blender occasionally. Pour into glasses and, if you like, garnish each with a wooden skewer holding a strawberry and a banana chunk. Makes 2 cups, or 2 servings.

Poundcake with strawberries and cardamom cream

1 pound sliced strawberries (about 3 cups)

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Black pepper

1 poundcake

Cardamom cream (recipe follows)

Sprinkle fruit with sugar and several grindings of pepper, and gently mix. Set aside for 30 minutes. Slice poundcake. Place one slice on each plate. Top each with about cup strawberries and 2 tablespoons of cardamom cream. Makes about 6 servings.

CARDAMOM CREAM:

1/2 cup cold whipping cream

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

In a cold bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed or a cold whisk, mix together whipping cream, sugar and cardamom until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Cream can be whipped several hours in advance and refrigerated until serving.

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