Strawberries: Jammed with flavor and nutrition

story and photos by Grace DickinsonIf there’s any public place where it’s acceptable to openly act like a kid again, it’s out in a strawberry field. Forget any worries of a red-stained face, mud on your knees, or washing or paying for your fruit—just let the moment melt around you as you relish the sweetness of a fresh-picked strawberry. All thoughts flee as the natural sugar hits your lips in one of the tastiest moments of life.

Anyone who’s experienced a strawberry straight from the vine knows that a supermarket strawberry should be known by an entirely different name. The flavors are that dissimilar. Even a locally purchased strawberry from a farmer’s market won’t stand up to one from the field. When you hand-select every strawberry from the vine, you get the sweetest carton you’ll likely ever take home. Plus, when you do the picking yourself, you get to eat a few along the way. Again, don’t worry. This month’s featured farmer, Norm Schultz, says it actually puts a smile on his face to see kids go home with a red face. And for the record, it’s fine by Schultz if adults eat a few, too — it’s a natural part of the picking process.

If you can’t get past an unwashed berry, or simply want a supply right outside your back door, consider growing your own. Spend an evening taking berries straight from your strawberry patch to a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever let them leave your garden.

Nutrition 101

Strawberries are jam-packed with vitamins, fiber and other healthy perks. A one-cup serving has just under 80 calories, as well as almost 150 percent of your daily recommended value of vitamin C and an array of other antioxidants. Strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside, which is where much of their five grams of fiber per serving is held.

What to look for

Choose plump, firm berries that are deep red from top to tip. Don’t discriminate by size. When ripe, the smaller ones are often the most flavorful. Note that once picked, strawberries will not continue to ripen.

For the Gardener

“A lot of the varieties you yield at home don’t get as big, but they have so much more flavor,” says gardener Bill Schick, who grows strawberries at a community garden in Mt. Airy and at Chester County Food Bank, where he is Agriculture Program Director. “The really big ones in the store are hollow with generally no flavor, and are mostly grown for appearance, size and shipping, much like tomatoes.” When the commute is just from the garden to the kitchen, durability is less of a factor, opening the door to much tastier varieties of strawberries.

Strawberries are perennials that produce for a handful of years. There are three main types: June-bearing, everbearing and day-neutral. The most common category, June-bearing, produce heavily for two to three weeks each spring. Everbearing plants produce two to three batches in late spring/early summer, and again in the fall. Day-neutral produce from spring to fall, except for when temperatures exceed 90˚F. There are advantages to each type, but if space is limited, Schick recommends day-neutral. “You generally won’t get enough to make a pie,” says Schick, “but you’ll get them all throughout the summer.”

From the Farm

If you are more interested in pick-your-own than grow-your-own, Linvilla Orchards in Media has 250 rows of strawberries, each 500 feet long, spread across eight acres. The farm is trying a new variety called Seascape, a day-neutral with a picking season that extends all summer. “We’ll plant them in April and start picking in June or July that same year,” says Linvilla farmer Schultz. Most other varieties of strawberries require a year of growth time before harvesting can begin. “You plant them, and within three weeks, the flowers will start to grow out. You pick all the flowers that first year and all the energy goes back into the plant.” For the Seascapes, Schultz will pick the flowers off two to three times within the season, harvesting at several specific times throughout the spring and summer.

According to Schultz, the biggest challenge of growing strawberries is spring frosts. “In one night, you could lose the whole crop,” he says. When frost is expected, the Linvilla farmers stay up all night and when the thermometer hits 32°F, they start adding water to the field. “The production of ice produces heat,” he explains, and underneath the ice, it stays at 33°F or above. This year, Schultz hopes to reduce his water usage by using a different method on half his acreage: low metal hoops with a covering three to four inches above the plants. “As long as that tarp doesn’t touch the flowers, the flowers won’t freeze,” he says. Schultz is unsure of how cold it can get before this method becomes ineffective, but he suggests it could be a useful technique for home-growers, too.

Growing strawberries is hard work, but Schultz says the biggest reward is the reaction from customers seeing directly where their food comes from. And when he takes his daughters out to pick on summer nights, it’s a sweet, annual experience he wouldn’t trade for anything.

For the Kitchen

 Pastries and desserts receive a well-deserved emphasis at Lacroix, at the Rittenhouse Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. Each spring, Executive Pastry Chef Fred Ortega gives strawberries their own special emphasis on the dessert menu. “They’re appealing, a very likable berry to everyone across the board,” says Ortega, who’s been with Lacroix for 10 years. “You’re going to make a lot of people happy if you have them on the menu.” When in season, Lacroix will often feature some form of strawberries on the menu for both lunch and dinner. Ortega prefers local berries to California ones, because though they are smaller, they have a higher sugar content and more intense flavor.

The inspiration for the recipe to the right came after a series of wine tastings at the fine-dining restaurant. Ortega explains that it’s common, particularly in Europe, to combine and macerate strawberries with wine or vinegar (wine that’s been turned to acid). “The sugar content of a strawberry brings a certain sweetness, and the wine is a different sweetness, so to combine them is very flavorful,” he says. Though Ortega suggests yogurt below, he has served variations of the recipe with everything from chocolate to various types of cake. He also proposes adding fruit to increase the texture or to serve the compote over a crumble.

Expect spice and herb-infused strawberry creations, like a basil-mint or coriander combination on the dessert menu this spring, as well as strawberry juice and basil shooters.

Strawberry and Wine Compote with Honey Lemon Greek Yogurt from the kitchen of  Chef Ortega

(Serves 2)

Compote

  • ¼ cup red wine (Merlot)
  • ½ cup black currants or blackberries
  • ½ vanilla bean, split
  • ½ tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp raw brown sugar
  • ½ cinnamon stick

Yogurt

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp honey 
  • ½ lemon, zested

For the compote: Place cinnamon stick and vanilla bean in sauce pot and lightly brown over medium heat, stirring continuously. Add red wine, currants, sugar and lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Cook until wine is reduced by half. Remove vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. Pour liquid over strawberries and stir to incorporate. Allow to cool in refrigerator and serve over Honey Lemon Greek Yogurt.

For the yogurt: Combine all ingredients and then divide into two servings. Top with strawberry and wine compote.

For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan

 Local strawberries are the most glorious manifestations of spring produce. Ruby red and so, so sweet, they lend themselves to many preparations.

While they have a naturally brief shelf life, you can extend them for a day or so by keeping them unwashed, laying them in a single layer on a plate and refrigerating.

If your berries are wilting, wash and chop them, and combine them with a few tablespoons of sugar. The sugar will act as a preservative and extend their quality.

Once your berries are sugared, you can freeze them, cook them into jam, or simply stir them into plain yogurt.

Learn more about food preservation at McClellan’s blog foodinjars.com

Grace Dickinson is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.