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Strawberries…Get ‘em while they’re fresh!

Today’s Special

Folks around here are excited that the famous Strawberry Festival in Humboldt is back on this year where the pretty berry is the star attraction.

I thought I preferred Arkansas strawberries for their flavor and nice size, but I’m really liking these local Tennessee berries.

Two years ago I made freezer strawberry jam for the first time and just last month DW and I finished the last container. Son Nicholas had raved over his mother-in-law’s famous strawberry jam, even eating it on peanut butter sandwiches.  I was motivated to try a batch after she shared a jar with me.

Seems that there are two main choices for strawberries around here. Just north of Jackson, up the Highway 45 bypass is a former garden center that only produces and sells hydroponically grown strawberries.

Seems you have to be in the know to be on their list and I’m not. They come perfectly stacked in berry boxes and dispensed from a machine. Every time I drive up there, the sign says “no strawberries today.”  But, on up the road in Milan is a wonderful, traditionally grown- berry producing farm and that’s where I’m headed this week.

Botanically speaking the strawberry belongs to the rose family or Frageria, which in Latin means “fragrant”.  They’ve grown wild for centuries in Europe and both Americas.  The tiny fraises des bois or strawberry of the woods from France is said to be the most flavorful in the entire world.

The most common strawberry native to America is from Virginia and what we have today is the result of years of crossbreeding.  Usually the smaller berries have the best flavor, for bigger does not necessarily mean better.  Larger berries can be watery and sometimes tasteless, so put the smell test to them, they should be as flavorful to the nose as to the palate!   

So good.  A 12-ounce bowl of strawberries has only 97 calories, no fat, no cholesterol and no sodium.  Just 8 strawberries provide 4 grams of fiber, 20 percent of the daily requirement of folate and 140 percent of the vitamin C we need every day – that’s more than an orange can boast!  These red beauties are also an important source of the mineral potassium which helps to lower blood pressure.

They contain phytochemicals which may help to prevent cancer and have more antioxidants than most other fruits and juices. And best of all, strawberries are so delicious they make it easy for us to get the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables because we can eat them at every meal and in-between snack times too.

Lucky for us, these luscious fruits are available year-round, but are at their peak during spring and summer. The best ones are usually the ones fresh picked or bought from a local patch, that’s why I’m headed up the road.  Once they are picked, they do not ripen any further so buy strawberries that are brightly colored with their green caps on.  Avoid soft, shriveled, or moldy berries.  Be a very discerning customer when it comes to buying fresh berries.

Store berries uncovered or loosely covered in a moisture proof container in the refrigerator for only 2 – 3 days from purchase or picking. A strawberry is a terrible thing to waste!

When you’re ready, wash them with the caps attached or else they will get mushy.  Hull them before slicing using a small spoon; a grapefruit spoon is my choice.  And strawberries have the best flavor when allowed to reach room temperature before serving.

If you end up with more than you can eat, freeze them.  Spread them out on a baking sheet, quick-freeze in the freezer, then put them in airtight freezer storage bags or boxes. And you can have them fresh all year!

How many strawberries does it take to fill a basket?  It’s all in how you slice them.   A small basket holds about one cup.  A pint holds 3¼ cups of whole berries, that’s 2¼ cups sliced or 1⅔ cups pureed berries.

So, now I’m off to Milan for strawberries, I think maybe 2 flats, then I’ll stop back in Jackson and see if I can hit the strawberry jackpot.  There’s no such thing as too many strawberries.

Recipe of the Week

Freezer Strawberry Jam

1 ¾ cups crushed strawberries (about 1 quart)

4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 pouch liquid pectin

Measure 1 ¾ cups crushed strawberries, place in extra large bowl. Add sugar, mix well, let stand 10 minutes. Measure lemon juice into small bowl. Add liquid pectin, stirring well. Stir into fruit, stirring for 3 minutes.  Pour prepared jam mixture into *freezer containers, leaving ½-inch headspace. Cover, let stand at room temperature until set, which can take up to 24 hours, then place in freezer.  Keep frozen until ready to use, then thaw and store in refrigerator.

(I use new sturdy plastic cup-sized containers with plastic screw on lids, though half-pint glass canning jars will work if they can be stacked safely in freezer, or stored in a freezer basket, so they won’t fall over, chip or break.)  Either way, these make coveted hostess gifts.