Sweetest pick of strawberries

Ripening: Fruit needs sunshine to enhance its favor.

May 30, 2001|By Michael Malone | Michael Malone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

They say spring is for lovers, and if you love strawberries your time is at hand.

As the days get long and fall toward summer, the strawberry's flame ignites. Strawberries are the symbol of Venus, the goddess of love. Their heart-shaped appearance alone inspires a certain passion, but it's the flavor that seals the deal.

At its best, a strawberry's perfume is irresistible: candylike and as bright as its color. Its flesh is sweet and voluptuously juicy, in that deep, alluring red. (You seldom see a movie scene with someone feeding a lover, say, broccoli.)

But at its worst, which is something we see more and more, the commercially grown berry at the grocery store is likely to be more of a heartbreaker. An impostor.

It wears the big red costume well enough, but with hardly a scent. It can be dull and flavorless, not very sweet, tart and acidic. It can be hard and dry with a texture more like balsa wood.

It's a simple fact that to get the sweetest berries you have to pick them as ripe as possible. Strawberries ripen on the plant. And the strawberry is a delicate thing. While an under-ripe berry is firm and easy to handle, a ripe berry is soft and vulnerable.

Commercial berries that have to travel a great distance have been bred for their appearance and shelf life and their ability to withstand shipping and handling, often at the expense of flavor. "It's the sunshine" that makes a berry sweet, says Larry Ruettiger, a longtime strawberry grower from Elwood, Ill. Those big, hard berries just haven't seen enough of that commodity.

"They have to pick them too green," Ruettiger says. "If you can get them three-quarters red, they'll get the rest of the color themselves, but they don't produce any more sugar off the vine. They just won't be as sweet."

"You have to pick the fully ripe berries," agrees Mary McCann at the McCann Berry Farm in Woodstock, Ill. "The sun ripening does make a difference."

Wherever you're buying or whenever you're picking, to find the sweetest berries, think like all the other animals who love them, and follow your nose.

Of course, you'll want to use your eyes, too, finding firm, plump, completely red berries with the green, fresh-looking tops still attached. But the sugar and the fragrance are an inseparable link in the flavor of a strawberry, and where there is one you are almost certain to find the other.

Strawberries are grown in every state of the Union. So wherever you find yourself, keep your eyes peeled and then simply reach out and pluck them from the vine. Or at least pull over and buy them by the basket.

Strawberry Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar, plus 6 teaspoons, divided use

1 1/2 cups chopped strawberries

2 eggs

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation time: 15 minutes; cooking time: 25 minutes

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup of the sugar in medium bowl. Toss in strawberries; set aside. Beat together eggs, butter, milk and vanilla in small bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients; stir until just combined.

Spoon batter into muffin tins lined with paper liners. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of sugar on top of each muffin. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes.

Per muffin: 240 calories, 33 percent calories from fat; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 55 milligrams cholesterol; 195 milligrams sodium; 37 grams carbohydrate; 3.7 grams protein;1 gram fiber

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