I can almost taste 'em! Juicy and tender, those tiny little seeds punctuating the soft and sweet flesh of the berry! For me, the inherent fun in strawberry picking and the distinct smell of hot, sticky homemade berry preserves officially marks the end of spring and the imminent leap toward summer.
According to Tim Hopkins, a local grower and strawberry expert, the season is almost here: just a few days to go! Since this spring has been quite mild, with few of the thunderous storms or hot, humid days we usually experience, the berries are coming up a little bit later, but are sure to be no less delicious.
A berry local story
Tim and his brother Jim, together with their wives, children and grandchildren, manage about 3 ½ acres of strawberries on a portion of Mt. Airy Farm, which has been in the family for generations. They are the lone u-pick strawberry operation in Anne Arundel County, surprising to me since this part of Maryland is historically so dedicated to farming.
Sadly, this could be the last season the family will offer u-pick berries to the public. Tim notes that he and his brother had full careers as teachers in Anne Arundel County, but they haven't really been able to retire because of the strawberry operation. "I'd like to not have to constantly worry about the weather for even just a day or two before I die," he recently joked. There is a chance they will keep the operation into next year, but they aren't buying any new plants. Strawberries have a notably short life span, so the end is near, and you should definitely seize this the opportunity to go berry picking close to home while you can.
The Hopkins cultivate the "Early Grow" variety of berries, which should peak in the next week to 10 days, depending on the weather. This variety only produces for a few weeks, and doesn't produce the very large berries common to late season plants. But the Hopkins swear they are redder, sweeter and juicier, and that they make excellent preserves and desserts.
Mt. Airy U-Pick Farm is located at the intersection of Davidsonville (424) and Mt. Airy roads in Davidsonville, close to Homestead Gardens. The farm is a short 15-minute drive from Annapolis or Bowie. Hours for picking are generally from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (unless picked out earlier), and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday (unless picked out earlier). On Sundays the farm is closed.
While Tim Hopkins predicts that picking can begin this weekend, the exact dates of peak ripeness are difficult to predict, so the he recommends calling the farm at 410-798-1862 or 410-798-0838 for hours of operation and opening days. The Hopkins are old fashioned farmers with a modern sensibility. Check in at http://www.twitter.com/mtairyupick
Be berry careful
: How to care for picked berries
Because of their brilliant red color and sensuous heart-shaped form, strawberries have been associated with Venus, the goddess of love. Accordingly, they should be treated with extra care and a tender touch.
Since strawberries do not ripen after they are picked, select only those with a fresh shiny look and bright red color. Check to see that the green stems, too, look fresh and not wilted. Refrigerate soon after purchasing the berries.
Do not wash the strawberries until shortly before ready to serve. Berries are highly perishable, and the extra water on them causes their cells to break down more quickly. Wash and cut only what you plan to use immediately.
If you are picking fresh strawberries, use a shallow basket or bowl and don't pile them more than two layers high. Too many layers will crush the fragile berries on the bottom.
Berries are especially delicious at room temperature, so remove from refrigeration half an hour or so before using.
Hull using a sharp knife or a huller. Only remove the white part, and not the precious berry flesh.
To freeze strawberries, wash and dry them, remove the stems, and arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place the sheet in the freezer until the berries are solidly frozen. Then pack them into a zip-lock freezer bag and keep them frozen until ready to use.
Homemade Strawberry Liqueur
Great for any number of summertime applications, this recipe is easy and inexpensive to make. You'll never buy the cheap, fake stuff again! You can make a similar recipe using raspberries. Add a split vanilla pod, a sprig of cinnamon basil, tarragon, pineapple sage or orange mint, 1 tablespoon or more citrus zest or even a dash of Cointreau for interesting flavor.
1 pint strawberries, roughly sliced
2 cups good vodka
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
flavorings as noted above
Place the strawberries and flavoring in a sealable glass jar, then add vodka. Seal and shake. Let mixture steep for 2 days at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Strain then filter through cheescloth or a paper coffee filter, taking care to get all the liquid you can.
Make a simple syrup with the water and sugar: Heat water and sugar in a pot on medium heat until it boils and forms a syrup, about 5 minutes. Don't let it burn. And don't let it splash and burn you! Let syrup cool in the pan.
Add the syrup to the strained liquid. Seal in the jar, gently turning to combine. Let the jar set for a day or two. Store in the refrigerator for up to two months.
Strawberry Rhubarb Compote
This is a favorite go-to recipe, which I use for garnish, sauce, dessert topping and even hand-pie filling as my mood or taste dictates. You can add citrus, herbs or vinegar for added nuance.
1 pound clean and peeled rhubarb stalks, diced (at least one cup)
1 tablespoon water
¾ cup sugar
seeds from 1 vanilla seed pod or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ pound ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced thinly (½ cup or more)
Place the diced rhubarb, water, vanilla and sugar in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a strong simmer. Reduce the heat to medium to cook gently but consistently until the sugar is dissolved and the rhubarb is broken down and tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Add the sliced strawberries to the rhubarb, stirring lightly to distribute. Let the sauce cool to lukewarm. To serve, remove the vanilla pod, if using. Spoon the compote over strawberry or vanilla ice cream, garnishing with candied mint.
Note: You can replace sugar with Splenda or even agave nectar. The conversion for granulated Splenda is 1:1.
Jammin' good time
Everybody loves strawberry jam. This year, try a new variation. Visit Pinterest to make some gift tags, et voila! You have a perfect gift for springtime giving! If you haven't tried preserving, I strongly urge you to try. It's much easier than it sounds, really doesn't take long at all, and your house will smell wonderful! Once you make your own, you'll come up with any excuse at all to use your jam and will find creative ways to do so: ice cream, yogurt topping, pie, flavored cream cheese, tarts, donut filling, lemonade, pancakes ... the list goes on.
Low-sugar canning recipes require special pectin and specific preparation. Check out http://www.freshpreserving.com.
Basic Strawberry Jam
From Ball Canning
My grandmother, aunt and mother always use this recipe, so I revert to it. A quick search online will turn up many others that don't use Ball pectin and use the spoon method for checking doneness.
5 cups crushed strawberries (about 5 pounds)
¼ cup lemon juice
6 tablespoons Ball® RealFruit® Classic Pectin
7 cups granulated sugar
8 (8 oz) half pint glass preserving jars with lids and bands
Prepare boiling water canner. Heat jars and lids in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
Combine strawberries and lemon juice in a 6- or 8-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in pectin. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over high heat, stirring constantly.
Add entire measure of sugar, stirring to dissolve. Return mixture to a full rolling boil. Boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary.
Ladle hot jam into hot jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band until fit is fingertip tight.
Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.
Vanilla Strawberry Jam:
Add half a vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise, to the crushed strawberries. Cook as directed and remove vanilla bean before ladling jam into jars.
Strawberry Balsamic Jam:
Reduce the lemon juice to 1 tablespoon and add 3 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar.
Citrusy Strawberry Jam:
Carroll County Daily Headlines
Add the grated zest of 1 large lemon, orange or grapefruit
Herby Strawberry Jam:
Add 1 tablespoon minced fresh mint, basil or pineapple sage to the crushed strawberries.
Spicy Strawberry Jam:
Add jalapeno or sweet, hot chili peppers.
Zippy Strawberry Jam:
Add 1 tablespoon Campari, Cointreau or Strawberry Liqueur