Strawberries

Bright red, sweet and flavorful, strawberries are one of springs most bountiful and popular crops, and they’re a sure sign to everyone that summer is right around the corner. May is peak season for strawberries along the Crystal Coast although the season runs late April through June. Throughout the season, roadside stands and farmers market load up on the colorful berries and families can be seen at pick-your-own farms shuttling little ones from row to row filling their baskets to brim.

It’s like a family reunion every year, said Sandra Simpson of Simpson’s Farm & Berry Path in Bettie, one of the small, rural communities that make up Carteret County’s Down East region.

“People who came as children with their parents come back as adults each year. We get to see the same people over and over from all over and they always comment on how good the strawberries are,” said Sandra. “It’s very rewarding work because of that. You wouldn’t think so because farming is difficult work, but it really is so rewarding.”

The strawberry season is nostalgic for the Simpsons for another reason – it played a role in their decision in the decision to build the large stand in 2005. The family had sold their vegetables out of a smaller greenhouse and each day during strawberry season, Sandra, who then worked full-time, would bake her popular low sugar strawberry cream pies each evening in the family home.

“We got to the point where we were sold out by 11am each morning, I couldn’t make enough to last through the day,” said Sandra.

So the family took a leap of faith, building their larger building and broadening their offering of homemade goods. Now, along with the strawberry pies, shoppers will find chocolate dream bars, pecan pie bars, ginger cookies, tomato pies and yeast rolls.

This year, said Sandra, the family is keeping a close eye on the strawberry crop thanks to the roller coaster weather this winter. Some plants had blooms during the last cold snap, forcing her husband George to take mitigating actions in hopes to protect the plants. And while they won’t be sure how much it impacted the crop, she is sure there will be plenty for pie making season.

The United States is hands down the largest producer of strawberries in the world. In 2014 a whopping 1.3 million tons of strawberries were produced in the U.S. The second highest producer, Turkey, recorded 376,070 tons that same year, and third in line, Spain, produced 291,870 tons. While most of the strawberries found in chain grocery stores come from Florida or California, there are plenty of roadside stands and farms to purchase from directly. And the best part – they’re good for us. Packed with vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants strawberries are sodium free and low in calories. According to WebMD, the fruit can lower blood pressure, increase our good cholesterol and help protect our hearts.

When purchasing strawberries it's always a good idea to visit a local farm. Beyond the importance of supporting local growers, those bought locally will generally have a longer shelf life unlike grocery store fruit which has wasted part of it life in transit. Look out for bright red, plump yet firm berry with a fresh strawberry scent. Size and shape can vary greatly. Just be sure that there aren't many white spots and that the beautiful red color reaches all the way up through the cap. It's important to note that strawberries, like many fruits, do not continue to ripen once it is picked.

For peak freshness, it is best to leave strawberries intact and unwashed until you’re ready to use them. Experts recommend storing them in the refrigerator. It’s ideal to keep them in a single layer on a paper towel, but stacked in a moisture proof container should work fine. Line it with paper towels to help wick away any moisture and keep the strawberries fresh and dry.

When you're ready to eat, wash strawberries gently and place on paper towels to air dry. Use a paring knife to cut out the green cap and the surrounding white area. There are strawberry hullers on the market, but they are just as easily cut with a small knife.

After a fun afternoon picking strawberries with the youngsters, one may find that they have more berries than they know what to do with. No fear – strawberries freeze quite well. People will definitely notice a texture change when eating frozen/defrosted strawberries by themselves, however, freezing remains a great way to save some for smoothies, sauces, pies or other baked items. You can even put off your jam making until later in the year if you find yourself too busy in the spring. For smoothies or shakes, defrosting isn’t required. Simply toss the frozen nuggets in to help thicken up the mixture.

Be sure to wash, fully dry and hull strawberries before freezing. Lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the freezer until they are frozen solid. Then, place the berries into zipper-type freezer bags for long-term storage. They should keep for six months to a year.

For an easy strawberry sauce just sprinkle cleaned, sliced strawberries with a little sugar and let them sit for a few hours in the refrigerator. It’s perfect for strawberry shortcake or drizzled over a bowl of nice vanilla ice cream.

Basic Strawberry Jam

  • 5 cups crushed strawberries (about 3 lbs)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons Pectin
  • 7 cups granulated sugar
  • 8 8-ounce jars with lids and bands

Heat jars in simmering water until ready for use – a water bath canner is preferable. Do not boil. Wash lids in warm soapy water and set aside. Mix strawberries and lemon juice in a large saucepan. Gradually stir in pectin. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Boil at a hard roll for about a minute, stirring constantly. Ladle into hot jars leaving about a 1/4 inch at top. Skim foam if necessary. Wipe rim and side of jar then replace lid and band tightening by hand. Process jars by submerging in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Turn off stove and wait five minutes before removing jars. If processed correctly, the lid should not flex up and down when the center is pressed.

Strawberry Crisp

  • 32 ounces of strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

Topping

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup old fashioned roll oats
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350. In a bowl mix strawberries, sugar and cornstarch and pour into a pie pan prepared with nonstick cooking spray. Mix together flour, oats, 1/3 cup white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Pour in melted butter and when blended, gently use the mixture to top the strawberries. Bake for 35-38 minutes.

Strawberry Shortcake

  • 1 1⁄2 lbs strawberries, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons sugar

Cake

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3⁄4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1⁄2 cups heavy cream

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons sugar on strawberries and refrigerate at least one hour for sauce to develop. Preheat oven to 400. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, 2 tablespoons sugar and salt. Add heavy cream. Pour into ungreased 8-inch square pan and bake 18 to 20 minutes. Place on rack to cool. Cut cake into six slices. When serving, spoon strawberries and juice over each shortcake when plating. Top with whipped cream.

Homemade Whipped Cream

  • 1 1⁄2 cups heavy cream, chilled
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Whip ingredients in the chilled metal bowl with a metal; usually takes 1-2 minutes.

Strawberry Bread

  • 1⁄2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 (3 ounce) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 cup milk (half 'n half)
  • 1 1⁄2 cups strawberries, chopped
  • 1⁄2 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar and cream cheese with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, and vanilla. Separately, mix baking powder, baking soda, flour and salt. Merge with butter mixture and mix gently until blended. Add half 'n half, again mixing gently. Carefully fold in strawberries and nuts being careful not to over stir. Pour into greased and floured loaf pan. Bake at 350 for 50 to 60 minutes.

French Napoleons

  • 2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 (3 1/2 ounce) package vanilla instant pudding
  • 1 cup whipped cream
  • 1 1⁄4 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
  • Powdered sugar
  • Chocolate syrup

Preheat oven to 400º On a lightly floured surface, roll out each pastry sheet to about 1/8-inch thickness. Use a cookie cutter to cut out nine Napoleons per sheet. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake for 8-11 minutes at 400º. Cool on wire racks. Whisk milk and pudding mix in a medium sized bowl. Fold in whipped cream. Split pastries in half on plate. Spoon strawberries onto bottom of pastry, followed by whipped cream filling, then top with a second layer of strawberries. Replace top and sprinkle with powdered sugar or zigzag chocolate syrup to serve.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 cups lightly packed baby spinach
  • 1 1/2 cups strawberries, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 ounces feta, crumbled

Whisk oil and vinegar in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add spinach, strawberries, almonds, sesame seeds, and feta. Add oil and vinegar and gently toss until coated.

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