Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers' market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
Spring is the best season in North Carolina. I miss the warm, sunny days, the blazing azaleas and the fragrant wisteria that perfumed the whole town of Chapel Hill when I lived there. But most of all, I miss the strawberry man.
Though it's been many years, I can still picture him clearly: a giant of a man wearing a bright red T-shirt and suspenders and cheerfully offering patrons of the Raleigh farmers' market samples of his berries every spring.
The farmer's strawberries were a delicious harbinger of a new season of fresh fruits and vegetables at the market. As the weeks passed, the berries would get plumper, redder and sweeter. In late April I would start by buying a pint, and by June, my husband and I would be loading a half a flat into our trunk each week (yes, that's a lot of strawberries for two people).
Although strawberries are available year round, there is nothing quite like the flavor of fresh, locally grown berries in the spring. That's because they are vine ripened, creating a scarlet red, remarkably juicy and succulent berry packed with natural sugars. They are a delight to both the eyes and the taste buds.
The United States produces more than 2 billion pounds of strawberries every year — which is a good thing, since 95 percent of Americans eat them. Although the majority are grown in California, nearly every state produces fresh strawberries at some point between May and July. So it shouldn't be too difficult to find them.
Strawberries have long been valued for their medicinal properties, beauty, flavor and fragrance. The ancient Romans ate wild strawberries to protect themselves against digestive ailments and melancholy.
It wasn't until the early 14th century that strawberries were formally cultivated in Europe. At that time, they were considered an aphrodisiac because of their heart shape and red color. In fact, newlyweds were traditionally served a soup of strawberries, sour cream and powdered sugar.
The strawberry, of the genus fragaria, is actually a member of the rose family. Fragaria comes from the Latin fragans, meaning odorous, and refers to the berry's fragrant flesh. So it's no surprise that during the Renaissance, strawberries were used to freshen one's breath. Perhaps no one admired strawberries' fragrance as much as Madam Tallien, a prominent socialite in Napoleon's court, who bathed in tubs filled with strawberries to keep her skin radiant and perfumed.
When European colonizers arrived in North America, native Indians were eating wild strawberries. They would mash the berries, mix them with corn meal and bake the mixture. Colonists created their own version of this recipe, giving birth to the classic American strawberry shortcake.
Because many early strawberries were not as sweet as today's, they were often made into jams and jellies that could be sweetened with sugar cane (a practice that dates to the 16th century, when Spanish colonists used sugar cane to preserve fruit).
The 18th century saw a major development in strawberry cultivation: North and South American varieties were crossbred, resulting in a larger, redder and sweeter berry — the modern-day strawberry. In the 19th century, these sweeter strawberries were paired with cream, which was considered a sumptuous dessert, and strawberries began regularly appearing in pie recipes. Then in the 20th century, strawberry ice cream and milkshakes became permanent fixtures of American cuisine.
Today, strawberries remain popular for jams, pie fillings, shortcake and ice cream desserts. They also have deliciously entered into the realm of the savory: They are featured in salads as well as salsas that accompany meats such as pork and chicken.
When selecting fresh strawberries, look for firm, glossy, red fruit with a fresh-looking green hull and no visible bruises. A tiny bruise today will most likely be a spoiled berry tomorrow. Fresh vine-ripened strawberries also are highly perishable and are best eaten the same day you buy them. However, they should last four to five days if placed unwashed, with the hull intact, in a paper-towel-lined plastic container in the refrigerator. For the fullest flavor, allow berries to come to room temperature before eating.
You also can freeze strawberries, which comes in handy if you buy a half a flat. Just remove the hull, rinse and pat dry, and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, place berries in zip-lock bags, and enjoy year round. Remember, the consistency will be softer, so they are best used in smoothies, jams or sauces.
Wherever you live, do yourself a favor this spring. Find a local u-pick strawberry patch or farmers' market and experience the sweetness of strawberries. And while you're there, be on the lookout for your own strawberry man.
You'll rise and shine when the aroma of fresh strawberries, almond and coconut fill your home. Made with coconut milk and honey, these muffins are exceptionally moist and not overly sweet. Don't limit them to breakfast only, though. They make a lovely afternoon treat with a cup of tea.
Makes 12 muffins
2/3 cup diced fresh strawberries**
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup light coconut milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon orange zest
3 tablespoons orange-blossom honey
2 teaspoons almond extract***
1/4 cup toasted sweetened shredded coconut
2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-mold muffin pan with cooking spray.
Wash strawberries, remove the hull and pat dry. Dice and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together coconut milk, melted butter and egg. Add the orange zest, honey and almond extract and whisk until just combined. Add to the flour mixture and stir quickly until well combined. (Over-mixing can make the batter heavy.) Fold in the toasted coconut and strawberries. Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 molds.
For the topping, mix 2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut and 2 tablespoons sliced almonds in a small bowl. Sprinkle on top of muffins.
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a cake tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 5 minutes before removing each muffin and placing on a wire rack to cool.
** Strawberries are often considered "too watery" to use in baked goods such as muffins and breakfast breads. Here are some tips for baking successfully with fresh strawberries:
• Use only really fresh berries that are firm, not mushy.
• Don't add more strawberries to the batter. That could make it too wet.
• Don't use frozen strawberries, which are much too watery.
***Note: Almond extract is deliciously, intensely flavorful. If you prefer a mild almond flavor, use 1 teaspoon instead of 2.
1/4 cup mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro, dill and mint
To make the dressing, whisk all of the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
The sugar snap peas can be eaten raw or cooked. Just remember to prep them first by snapping the top of the pea back and pulling until you remove the stringy spine on both sides of the pod. To cook, simply drop peas in boiling water for 2 minutes; drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. This will stop the cooking process and preserve the peas' bright green color.
To prepare the salad, mix the mesclun, strawberries and sugar snap peas in a large bowl. Coat with dressing and toss gently. Garnish with additional lemon zest or fresh herbs, if desired.
**Meyer lemons are sweeter than regular lemons. They can be found in organic markets, such as Whole Foods, as well as most major supermarkets.
If you've never paired strawberries with meat, then expect to be pleasantly surprised. Succulent strawberries and mango are enhanced with aromatic anise seed in this simple yet flavorful salsa. The fruits' sweetness contrasts pleasingly with the savory grilled chicken breasts. You could also make this dish with grilled pork chops.
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (4 pieces about 6 ounces each)
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup sweet onion, such as Vidalia, finely chopped
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 cup diced mango
2 cups chopped strawberries
Salt and freshly ground back pepper, to taste
Brush chicken halves with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Let stand for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile for the salsa, melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion for 3 to 4 minutes, or until slightly softened and browned. Stir in the anise seed and diced mango, cooking for 2 minutes more. Add strawberries and cook 1 to 2 minutes, until slightly softened. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
Grill chicken over medium-high heat for 6 to 7 minutes per side, or until crisp on the outside and cooked through. Spoon salsa evenly among the 4 pieces of chicken. Serve immediately.
This is a simply chic dessert: Ripe berries are dressed with a velvety, rich limoncello-spiked cream. It's ideal for a weeknight dessert since it can be made in about 15 minutes, yet is elegant enough for a special dinner party.
Makes 4 servings
4 cups assorted fresh berries, such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries
1/4 cup sugar
4 ounces mascarpone cheese**
2 teaspoons lemon zest, preferably Meyer lemon***
3 tablespoons limoncello****
Fresh mint, crushed pistachios (optional)
Combine fresh berries and sugar in a bowl and toss gently. Let stand about 20 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine mascarpone, lemon zest and limoncello. Whisk until soft and slightly fluffy.
Divide the fruit among four serving bowls and top with a dollop of the mascarpone cream. Garnish with additional lemon zest. Optional garnishes include fresh mint and crushed pistachios.
**Mascarpone (mass-car-pon-ay) cheese is a soft, triple-cream Italian cheese, most commonly associated with the Italian dessert tiramisu. It is available in Italian markets, specialty grocers and most major supermarkets.
***Meyer lemons are sweeter than regular lemons. They can be found in organic markets, such as Whole Foods, as well as most major supermarkets.
****Limoncello (lee-mon-chay-low) is a lemon-flavored Italian liqueur that can be found in liquor stores, Italian markets and most major supermarkets (where liquor is sold).