Writer friend explains how to be picky about berries

May 12, 2004|By ROB KASPER

ONCE the local strawberries start showing up, life starts getting better. The first strawberries have started to appear at markets on the Eastern Shore, the part of Maryland that gets warmer sooner.

From May to mid-June the strawberry harvest will march west, proceeding from the sandy soils of Anne Arundel to the mountain ridges of Garrett County, producing successive weeks of sweet fruit.

The quality of the strawberry crop depends, of course, on how much rain and how much hot sun we get during the tumultuous Maryland spring. Lots of rain means soggy berries. Too much hot sun makes them shrivel.

Even in their off years, I prefer the local berries to the big, gorgeous fruit flown in from California. The local strawberries may be small and squishy, but they have substantial flavor and remarkable aroma. I believe that in most matters edible, the closer the eater is to the picking field, the happier the result.

Having said all that, I recently rushed the start of strawberry-eating season by buying a few pints of "imported" berries at a local supermarket. I wanted the strawberries because Janie Hibler, author of The Berry Bible (Morrow, 2004, $45.95), was not only coming to dinner at our house, she was also going to cook it.

Hibler, a family friend for almost two decades, was going to sear some halibut, then serve it on mounds of basmati rice drenched with coconut-milk sauce and topped with strawberry-and-papaya relish. It was one of the 175 recipes in her new book.

A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Hibler has grown up surrounded by fresh berries. She picked them as a kid in northern California and made sauces with them when her husband, Gary, an avid hunter, would bring home fresh game, sometimes plopping a carcass on their porch. When their son and daughter, Kelly and Kristen, were children, she bribed them and their playmates into helping her pick berries in fields near their Portland, Ore., home by offering to bake them a pie of their own.

Two of her earlier cookbooks, Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers andWild About Game, a James Beard award winner, contain some berry recipes. But her new book is totally devoted to the fruit.

There is an A-to-Z encyclopedia of berries where, for example, you can look up distinguishing characteristics of five different types of raspberries - arctic, black, purple, mora and winery - as well as how to pick them. There is a photo spread showing, in mouthwatering "poses," almost 60 different types of berries.

A chapter on basics relates two good ways to bathe berries: Either put them in a colander, spray them with cold water and gently shake them, or dunk them in a salad spinner filled with cold water.

And a chapter on berries and health details how the phytochemicals found in berries foil free radicals, helping our bodies fight disease. While no guarantees of good health are offered, the regimen of eating a variety of berries three or four times a week sounded much more appealing to me than some of the other diet strategies that are out there.

A discriminating berry buyer should behave like a wine buff, Hibler says, finding out the berries' background and sending back the bad stuff. If you buy a basket of particularly good berries, Hibler says, you should ask the store produce manager for the berry's cultivar (a contraction of cultivated variety). In Oregon, for instance, Hood and Marshall are prized strawberry cultivars.

If you find a cultivar you like, keep asking for it, she says. Moreover, if you get berries that don't deliver, take them back to the store. "Until consumers start demanding higher-quality berries," Hibler writes, "stores will keep selling inferior fruit."

The strawberries I bought for the halibut dinner were out-of-town, out-of-season and probably should been sent back to the store. But Hibler worked with them.

Mixed with fresh papaya, chopped red onion, cilantro, lime juice and olive oil, they made a relish with bright, clean flavors.

Cooking the halibut required two pans - searing it in a saute pan on the stove top, then transferring it to a preheated cast-iron skillet in a 500-degree oven - but the results were worth the effort. The high heat made the halibut moist, almost buttery. The sauce, a mixture of pan juices and heated coconut milk, added distinctive, almost sweet notes.

The strawberry relish was pleasing. So was the rustic strawberry-rhubarb pie - a recipe with a pinch of cinnamon and cardamon that came from Hibler's husband. My wife and I made the pie a few days later with the leftover store-bought berries.

I can't wait to try both recipes again when the good stuff, the local strawberries loaded with juice, come to town.

Curried Halibut With Strawberry-Papaya Relish

Serves 4


1/2 cup chopped fresh strawberries

1/2 cup peeled, seeded and chopped papaya

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon chopped red onion

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon mild olive oil

pinch of coarse salt


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