Strawberry Fields, Now

Savor the sweet Sandhills berries

By Jan Leitschuh

Peak strawberry time is now. You know you want some.

Though you’ll find local Sandhills strawberries at farm stands and markets in late April, this delectable expression of spring hits its flavorful red stride in early to mid-May, then tapers off quickly after Mother’s Day as the weather heats up.

So you’ll not want to procrastinate — though feel free to lollygag once you’re in your friendly neighborhood pick-your-own strawberry field, scooping up the juicy red berries.

Going out to the farm to pick your own berries is just one of those “must-have” experiences. Grab a bucket, your appetite and the nearest kid. This is the time to unplug and savor a sun-warmed, sweet berry, passing onto the next generation the pleasure of gathering wholesome food sprung from the earth — and helping a local farmer hang on to the family farm, in the process. Spring for a strawberry ice cream cone on the way out.

Yes, you see, we know you likely did not plant your Chandler, Camarosa or Sweet Charlie varieties last October, as your local Sandhills farmers did. You didn’t spend time and treasure enriching your soils. You didn’t need to hover over the weather reports and your strawberry beds all winter, covering and uncovering the young plants, trying to balance the frost protection versus the sunshine.

You could this year, though, if you wanted your own little strawberry bed in the backyard. You can get a flat of strawberry “plugs” next October and plant the crowns level with the surface of your rich soil, watering in well. If not trying to support a farm on the springtime harvest, you can skip the tedious covering and uncovering and let them ripen on nature’s schedule. Keep your little patch free of weeds, and “groom” off the old leaves during the first winter, pick off most of the flowers that first spring to give the plants a chance to settle in and grow strong. Some farmers swear an extra little hit of magnesium makes the crop sweeter.

Strawberries are one of the most expensive crops to plant commercially. “Out of pocket, before you pick your first strawberry, call it $11,000 an acre, with plants, labor, soil treatment, plastic and drip irrigation,” says Taylor Williams, Moore County’s agriculture extension agent at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Carthage.

N.C. Cooperative Extension has a list of local U-Pick strawberry growers. “We have seven in Moore and three in Richmond, three or four in Lee County,” says Williams, “one of which is certified organic, Olde Carthage Farm.” (Call the Extension at 910-947-3188 for more info on locations.)

Sandhills strawberries are true culinary lovelies. Unlike grocery store berries, ours are tender and fully sweet, bred to be picked at peak ripeness rather than harvested while still hard enough to ship across several time zones and two or three mountain ranges. Sandhills strawberries are juicy things, sweet because they have the time to further ripen into something worthy of your grandmother’s strawberry shortcake recipe.

“There’s a difference between one that is shipped across country firm and a little sour,” says Williams. “In the Sandhills, pick ‘em ripe, eat them within two or three days, then go back for more.”

Growing up in Wisconsin, we cooked up our sweet strawberries with tart, chopped stalks of spring rhubarb for a tasty compote or our very own “Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie.” The perennial northern plant loves colder climates and marries well with strawberries, offsetting their sweet seedy pulp with a companionable tang. While I have grown rhubarb here in the Sandhills, it was on irrigation and in afternoon shade. These days, I just see it in the produce department of a number of grocery stores come May, same time as strawberries, and snag it quickly for a hit of nostalgia.

Bananas are another famous partner to strawberries. In season, use them together liberally on breakfast cereals or on morning smoothies as well as fruit salads and desserts.

And speaking of desserts and famous partnerships, whipped cream just has a creamy affinity for Sandhills strawberries. Slice a cake round carefully in half. Slather one layer with whipped cream and berries, top with the other half and add more whipped cream and berries. Or slice open your favorite biscuit for a shortcake. Even simpler: crumble a pound cake into a goblet, layering berries and whipped cream. Top with the perfect berry.

Strawberry pavlova has to be the ultimate elegant berry dessert. Whipped cream is nestled into a nest of crispy egg-white meringue, then the strawberries are ladled atop that. Add a dash of whipped cream to top it off, with a whole berry atop that. Yowza!

Some folks are allergic to strawberries — imagine that! I was one such child, and would break out in hives even as I stuffed myself. Thankfully, it was something I outgrew. Curiously, folks allergic to birch pollen, they say, are also likely to react to strawberries.

Berries are low-glycemic brain food. An excellent source of vitamins C, K, fiber, folic acid, manganese and potassium, they also contain significant amounts of phytonutrients and colorful flavonoids which make strawberries bright red. A springtime strawberry feaster may find that the fruit acids can be hard on your dental enamel, so be sure to brush after indulging and schedule your teeth cleaning after strawberry season when they might not be as sensitive.

Sandhills strawberries are tender, and turn to mush fast. Don’t let their plastic container sweat, if you can. Moisture is their downfall. I like to store berries, all berries actually, with a paper towel between each layer to get an extra day or two in the fridge. Strawberry secrets include not washing the tender berries until right before using because of this deterioration soon after rinsing. Wash and handle them with care.

Another flavor tip is to let them come to room temperature before serving — you get maximum flavor. Once picked, store in the fridge crisper and eat within a day or two. Strawberries do not ripen further so avoid those that are dull, or have green or yellow patches.

Assuming you went berry-happy at the U-Pick and returned home with more than your strawberry-cobbler-loving self could absorb in a few days — hey, no shame, everyone does — you can preserve the excess. Some people will put up quantities of jam. You can also freeze whole berries for later smoothies, cooked desserts or even later jam sessions — simply rinse, remove the green cap and freeze whole on a cookie sheet. After 24 hours, pack them in freezer bags and use within a few months to prevent freezer burn.

An elegant and clean dessert is a simple strawberry ice to celebrate the season. Grown-ups — just add a glass, a bit of rum and a little umbrella.

Strawberry Ice:

5 cups fresh or frozen unsweetened strawberries, thawed

2/3 cup sugar

2/3 cup water

1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions: Place the strawberries in a blender or food processor; cover and process until smooth. In a saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil. Cook and stir until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes; cool slightly. Add to blender. Add lemon juice; cover and process until combined. Pour into a shallow freezer container; cover and freeze for 4-6 hours or until almost frozen. Just before serving, whip mixture in a blender or food processor. PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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