Getting best from berries: tips on picking, serving

May 12, 1999|By ROB KASPER

IT IS GETTING CLOSE to berry-picking time. Around here, the stretch of days from mid-May to mid-June fills up with obligations, like weddings and school graduations, and with fresh local strawberries. This year, thanks to a patch of cool weather, the crop is likely to start ripening at the end of May, state agricultural officials say.

You have to wear your best duds for the social obligations. But when you are picking strawberries, you want to wear something old and ugly. Strawberries grow close to the ground, which is often muddy. It might be true that when you are picking apples and other fruit grown in trees, the sweetest stuff is found at the top of the tree. But when you are picking strawberries, you are working down in the muck, not up in the clouds. You gotta bend over if you want to get the good stuff. (To get a list of such farms, drop by the Cooperative Extension Office in your county or in Baltimore City, and ask for the 1999 brochure on direct-farm markets and pick-your-own operations.)

Every spring, I regale my kids with strawberry-picking tales. They couldn't care less that when I was a teen-ager I made real money -- $1.25 a flat (8 quarts) -- working the strawberry fields. They seem faintly interested in the fact that when they were toddlers, they participated in pick-your-own expeditions in Carroll County. But contrary to what the Beatles song says, the attraction of strawberry fields does not last forever. Instead, it seems to be limited to the preteen years. Now, when our teen-agers talk about "picking strawberries," they mean choosing among the boxes of berries that have been harvested by someone else.

Nonetheless, every spring I harbor fantasies about getting the family out in the fields and harvesting a trunk load or two of berries. This year, as part of my strawberry-readiness ritual, I consulted two fans of the fruit, Babs Wilkinson, a home economist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, who wrote about berries in a recent Tarheel Kitchen mailing, and Ina Garten, author of "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, 1999), a work that carries the name of the East Hampton, N.Y., specialty food store she operates.

Both offered tips on how to get the best out of my strawberries.

There appears to be a correct way to pick a strawberry. Using your thumb and forefinger, you should pinch the stem of the berry, not yank the berry from the plant. Pinching rather than yanking preserves both the berry and the plant, Wilkinson said. She also advised letting the berries keep their caps on. When the caps -- the green tops -- are removed, the berries lose some of their moisture, she said.

She also told me to refrain from washing the berries until just before I am ready to use them. Washing the berries early tends to bruise them, and when bruised, the berries lose some of their freshness, she said. Washing simply means placing the berries in a strainer and rinsing them with cool water, she said.

Garten, the East Hampton cookbook author, said she liked to occasionally serve large strawberries with their stems on. "They come with their own handles," she said, adding that they were ideal finger food to serve at wedding receptions.

Another good use for fresh strawberries is to make them part of a serve-yourself dessert, she said. "You put out a bowl of strawberries, several different kinds of ice cream, some whipped cream, and you tell people to make their own ice cream sundaes," she said.

Her favorite strawberry dessert is strawberry shortcake, she said. But, Garten said, she also likes to make a fresh fruit tart, filling the tart with pastry cream, then topping the tart with strawberries.

My favorite strawberry dessert is also strawberry shortcake. My second favorite is a strawberry pie made by Cheryl Magazine, a former neighbor.

If I get my family to work in the strawberry fields this year, this pie will be our reward.

Strawberry Pie

Serves 8

1 warm 9-inch baked pie crust (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons sugar

3 dozen whole, perfect strawberries, washed and hulled

2 cups sliced strawberries

1/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon butter

whipping cream

While pie crust is still warm, sprinkle with the melted butter and 2 tablespoons of sugar and set aside to cool. Place whole berries, tips up, in concentric circles inside crust.

In medium saucepan, combine the next 5 ingredients and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook over medium heat, about 5 minutes, until thick and clear. Pour this glaze over tips of berries. Chill pie. Slice into wedges and serve topped with whipped cream.

Pie Crust

Makes two 9-inch shells

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup shortening

5 tablespoons cold or ice water

Sift flour and salt into large bowl. Drop shortening onto flour and cut with 2 table knives or pastry blender until flour-coated particles are size of peas. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pressing together moistened particles with your hand or a fork. After adding 5 tablespoons of water, form pastry into a ball. Can be rolled out right away or chilled in wax paper for 30 minutes to reduce stickiness. Bake in pie pan at 450 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, until brown.

Pub Date: 05/12/99

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