The sweet strawberry strikes a balance


Strawberries don't wait for you to find them. They beckon. Their botanical name, Fragaria, means fragrance, and it's their sudden perfume in farmers markets that signals the start of a new fruit season. From this month through June, they're at their sweetest, with that unique combination of firmness, seedy interest and juice.

One has to study the plant's caning habit in the ground to appreciate its standing as a member of the rose family. Like the flowers, they've been bred to emphasize qualities we relish. The berry we eat is the result of a marriage of two American species, Chilean and Virginian, which for obvious geographical reasons never hybridized in the wild, but which met in an 18th-century French garden and were crossed for the table.

The Virginian brought flavor and color, the Chilean size. As hundreds of commercial cultivars have been developed around the world, breeders still struggle to find the right balance between the two. The bigger a strawberry gets, the more careful one should be checking for flavor before paying $3 a pint. Too often the flavor is on the surface, with the red skin and carpet of often yellow seeds, while the bulk of the berry is white and tasteless.

A really good strawberry will be red almost to the center and highly perfumed, and - don't laugh - will taste of pineapple, except without that tropical fruit's pitched sugars and acids. The French were so struck by the similarity, they named the table strawberry Fragaria x ananassa, ananassa meaning pineapple.

Since that original French masterstroke of dessert-making in the garden, any number of "fragrant pineapple" cultivars have been developed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Slow-Cooked Strawberry Preserves

Total time: 4 to 5 hours, plus several hours or overnight standing

Makes 9 to 12 cups

12 pint baskets (1 flat) strawberries

2 cups sugar (3 for tart berries)

Juice of 1 medium-sized lemon

Rinse the berries without submerging them in water. Remove the hulls, leaving the berries whole. Combine the berries, sugar and juice in a nonaluminum bowl. Allow the berries to macerate at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 3 to 4 hours. The mixture can be covered and refrigerated overnight at this point.

Divide the berries and the juice (it will yield approximately two pints) in equal proportions into 2 or 3 wide, shallow pans - a large copper-bottomed risotto pan or cast-iron enameled pot is good. If using a thin pan, use a heat diffuser to avoid hot spots. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, skim the foam that collects on the surface, then reduce the heat to low. Make sure bubbles continue to break the surface. Stir the mixture gently, pushing the berries in a gentle circle, taking care not to slice through them or break them up. Part of the charm of the jam is the proportion of whole berries.

After about 20 minutes, the berries will give up additional juices and appear to be floating. Press them with a wooden spoon and skim off foam, placing the foam in a bowl near the stove. As the foam juice collects, skim it, and return the red juice to the pan. Continue cooking the berries, stirring and skimming occasionally for 3 to 4 hours. The cooking time will vary depending on the berries, the amount of sugar, the type of pan and the heat from burners. The jam is almost done when it turns dark red, the ratio of berries to juice is about equal and it begins to coat a wooden spoon.

At the end of 3 hours, tart berries cooked with more sugar should be done. It might take closer to 4 hours for berries cooked with the lesser amount of sugar. If necessary, after 4 hours, raise the temperature to quickly cook off excess water, stirring to prevent scorching. To test for how the preserves will set, put a spoonful on a frozen plate and see how it gels. Turn off heat and can in the usual way, or allow to cool and refrigerate and use within several days.

Each tablespoon: 27 calories; 0 protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 0 sodium

-Recipe and analysis from the Los Angeles Times

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