Get Stuffed 

Scent of summer

Flavour, goodness of strawberries has been recognized for ages

This week local strawberries have been ripe for picking. If you have been able to get to Pemberton to pick for yourself you may have noticed the heady perfume of warm berries as you stepped from the car. For me, this is the true smell of summer. Indeed, this intense aroma is the best indicator of quality when picking or buying strawberries.

Strawberries were first cultivated in the 13th century. At that time there were only five or six varieties. As their popularity grew, energetic cross breeding of different plants in the 19th century have resulted in over 600 varieties, which are constantly being added to. The larger berries that we take for granted today are a result of careful cross breeding between an American and Canadian variety, the scarlet Virginia strawberry ( Fragaria virginiana ) and a juicy sweet variety from Chile ( Fragaria chiloensis).

Ancient Romans, as well as the alchemists of the Middle Ages, attributed universal healing properties to the strawberry. Chock full of vitamin C and a healthy dose of potassium and other minerals it is easy to understand why.

When picking strawberries try to pick in the early morning or later in the afternoon, when the fruit is cool. They are best used within two-three days of picking. Cover and store unwashed in the fridge.

When buying strawberries they should be bright red and firm with bright green leaves. They should not have any white near the top as this indicates they have been picked before they are ripe and, unlike other fruits, they will not ripen after being picked.

To freeze whole strawberries gently wash in ice water before hulling (taking the green leaves off the top of the berry). Allow berries to air-dry then place side by side on flat baking trays. Pop them in the freezer until completely frozen. Remove berries from the tray to heavy freezer bags. Remove as much air as possible from the bags before returning them to the freezer. The strawberries will keep for up to a year.

Because the berries have been individually frozen you can use as many or as few berries as you would like at a time. Use them as ice cubes in fancy drinks, pop them in the blender with banana and yogurt for a quick smoothie, or toss them into a bowl of cereal.

Things to do with strawberries:

• toss with avocado, spring greens and a balsamic vinaigrette with lots of freshly ground pepper for a delicious salad. The spicy black pepper really brings out the sweetness of strawberries;

• strawberry margarita — throw tequila, triple sec, ice, a splash of lime and a pinch of salt with a few handfuls of freshly hulled berries into the blender – you may want to add a bit of sugar to taste;

• add whole berries to sangria or sparkling white wine;

• macerate (wash and hull and let the berries sit in the alcohol for a few hours) in liqueur or champagne and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche or whipping cream;

• fold mashed strawberries into whipped cream to serve with pound cake or banana cake;

• au naturel with a dip of plain yogurt or mascarpone cream (Italian cream cheese) mixed with honey.

More strawberry facts can be found at www.jamm.com/strawberry/facts.html

Recipes:

Strawberry Shortcake

There are countless recipes for this classic dessert. This one was adapted by Lindsey Shere, author of "Chez Panisse Desserts" and pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. This recipe, using cream biscuits instead of cake layers, was featured in the June 1994 issue of Food & Wine magazine.

Serves 4.

1 pint strawberries — rinsed, hulled and thinly sliced lengthwise

2 tablespoons plus 3 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

3/8 teaspoon salt (3 good pinches)

2 cups heavy cream (whipping cream), chilled

1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Icing sugar for dusting

1. In a medium bowl, toss the strawberries with 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, salt and 2 teaspoons of the granulated sugar. Stir in 1 cup less 1 tablespoon of the heavy cream until just combined. Knead briefly.

3. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and roll out to a scant 1/2-inch thickness. Using a biscuit cutter or a glass, cut out eight 2 1/2-inch rounds. Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden.

4. In a large bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, whip the remaining 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream and 1 teaspoon sugar with the vanilla extract until it holds a soft shape.

5. To serve, split the shortcakes horizontally and place 2 bottoms on each of 4 dessert plates. Spoon the berries and their juices on the biscuits. Dollop with whipped cream. Cover with the shortcake tops, set slightly askew. Lightly dust icing sugar over the biscuit tops and serve.

Strawberry Vinegar

Dead easy and an ideal way to use up overripe fruit. The vinegar is mellow with a distinctly fruity taste and can be added to salad dressings, marinades and sauces. It also makes a nice gift. This recipe is adapted from "Preserving" by Oded Schwartz.

Yields approximately 2 litres of vinegar.

5 cups (1.25 litres) cider vinegar or white wine vinegar (not regular white vinegar as it is too strong)

1kg. (2 lb.) ripe, full-flavoured strawberries

1. In a non-reactive saucepan, bring vinegar to a boil and boil rapidly for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to 104 F (40 C) (warm to the touch).

2. Hull the strawberries and finely chop. Place them in a large glass bowl or ceramic crock. Alternatively, finely chop them in a food processor.

3. Pour the warm vinegar over the chopped berries and mix well. Cover with a clean cloth and let stand in a warm place (a sunny window sill is ideal) for two weeks, stirring every few days.

4. Strain the vinegar through cheesecloth or a coffee filter supported by a funnel . Pour into sterilized bottles, then seal. Store in a cool, dark, place or refrigerate.

Note: The flavour of this vinegar improves with age but the pretty pink colour will fade to brown. If the vinegar is cloudy leave it to sit until the sediment settles at the bottom. The clear vinegar can then be siphoned off.

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