strawberry candy

IMG_7662As happy as I am to usher in strawberry season, it’s really just a prelude to raspberry season for me.  I’m not really a huge fan of strawberry jam, since I find it discolors more quickly than other berry jams, and the pieces are often too big and slippery.  My favorite preparation for strawberries is, instead, dehydrated slices that taste sweeter and cleaner than other dried berries do when dried.

IMG_7591Sliced at 1/4-inch thick and dried until crisp at 135 degrees, they make great additions to trail mix, cheese plates, oatmeal, and granola.  The trick is to slice them evenly (do not follow my example here), get them fresh, pick a large, solid variety (Hoods or Tillamooks work well; avoid Seascapes or Shuksans) and make way more than you think you’ll need.  I sometimes wait until the end of the season so I can get a deal on a flat after everyone has tired of eating these delicious morsels fresh with cream, as we do.

Have little strawberries left over?  I’ve stopped using supermarket California strawberries for my annual strawberry clay facial mask because of the pesticides (no, I’d never eat them).  So make a facial from nice organic Oregon ones instead!

having your way with strawberries, green and red

Although I sacrificed my entire crop of strawberries to make the new plants stronger for next year, you most likely didn’t.  (One pinches off all the first year flowers to strengthen the plant.  Yes, ALL.  Off with their heads, shouted I. Carnage ensued.)

But for those of you who are not the Queen of Hearts, and those finished making tarts, consider some terrific resources for making strawberry preserves.  Strawberries, of all the berries, do well as freezer jam. Freezer jam tends to use less sugar and less cooking than the other versions (the pectin-free/sugar-heavy method, the pectin/sugar-heavy method,and the low-sugar/low-methoxyl-pectin (Pomona) preparations).  Less cooking means a brighter color and more fruit flavor.

If you’re making a regular batch of jam, you’ll need a half-flat for the standard recipe, which usually requires four cups of crushed berries.

Consider how you’ll be using jam before you decide which method you’d like to use — low sugar or regular.  I’m not hung up on eschewing pectin like others seem to be lately, especially since I use the low-methoxyl stuff which doesn’t have dextrose in it.

But I do keep in mind that if you don’t use pectin, your jam will need more sugar to set.  And that can be a good idea.

Sometimes — and I’d argue always with strawberries — a higher amount of sugar actually helps bring out the fruit when you’re pairing your jam with something like buttered toast or a thumbprint cookie sprinkled with powdered sugar.  Don’t trust me — taste the difference yourself. Most people take a spoonful straight and wax melodic about the fruit taste in low-sugar jam.  Yes, but…

When you have both to compare, you’ll find that the fruit flavor is actually lost in the low-sugar preparation, where in the sugary jam, it can hold its own against other ingredients.  Plus, the color fades rather dramatically and relatively quickly with low-sugar strawberry jam.

To make a small batch of pectin-free/full-sugar strawberry jam, watch this excellent new video from the folks at Cooking Up a Story, a video blog that features great interviews with local food movers and shakers.

And to doctor up your strawberries with surprising nuances, check out Punk Domestics’ punkberry roundup for strawberry preservation.  On this aggregate blog, preservationists (including me, from time to time) post unusual recipes.  For strawberries this year, I see he’s got everything from strawberry-campari to smokin’ hot chipotle-strawberry to strawberry-orange.

For the record, my own strawberry jam usually fits a floral profile (elderflower, rose geranium, mint, lavender) or a spicy profile (black pepper, allspice, balsamic, Sichuan peppercorn).  I often use flavored syrups or bitters.  My favorite was Sweet Cheeks pinot gris simple syrup, made by boiling down a bottle of wine with sugar until syrupy.

This year? I made Retrogrouch, he of the low-sugar diet, some low-sugar Strawberry Fleur, which had elderflowers and various scented geraniums, from the Hoods I bought in PDX a couple of weeks ago.

Which varieties of strawberries are best for jam?  Check out my post here.  You can mitigate the dark color issue if you choose a light berry like Bentons.

But that’s not what I’m most excited about this year.  It’s green strawberries!

Green strawberries have become the darling of the chic restaurant this long, long spring in Oregon.  Who knew they’d be so good with seafood?

Above, you can see two lovely savory salads with greenies.  The first photo is one of the dishes at the “Hunt, Gather, Feast with Hank Shaw” dinner at Castagna I attended this weekend.  (Post about the meal here!)  We ate cod three ways: smoked and cured as a base, and frozen and powdered in savory creams above.  Above the scoop of frozen cod cream is locally foraged pine tips.  The green strawberries were just slightly sweet, so it was perfect.

But even better, I’d argue, are the pickled green strawberry – squid – turnip batons – “an obscure Italian herb” salad from Park Kitchen.  Picture isn’t great because of the lighting, but you get the picture.  The strawberries are slightly pickled, and the salad is dressed with a lemony buttermilk.  Delicious.

I may reprise my role as the Queen of Hearts next year, too.  Forget this jam stuff. Off with their immature fruits!

let me take you down, ‘cuz i’m going to…

Making strawberry jam?  Choose wisely, intrepid voyagerVariety really does matter, and I find that the distinctions in color and flavor among our glorious Oregon strawberries are important — more important, perhaps, than in our other berry crops.

Avoid anything grown in California.  Don’t buy strawberries from the grocery store, since most of those berries are cardboard Californians, day-neutral cultivars bred for continual production, large size, color, and portability.  They are dripping with very toxic pesticides and bloody with reprehensible labor practices.  Sure, if you live in the Bay Area and can get strawberries grown at a smaller farm, I suppose you could buy California strawberries, since you don’t have much of a choice, but if you’re in Oregon, thank your lucky stars and read on!

Because we live in strawberry heaven, and we don’t have to deal with that nonsense.  Oregon, where it’s worth the wait.

As I have made a habit of reporting, I head straight for the light, bright Bentons here in Eugene, since they make a beautiful ruby jam.  Strawberries tend to darken with sugar, and cooking makes them even darker, so light berries can really affect the jam’s look.  Bentons appear later in the season, so consider experimenting with other berries until you see them.  Believe me, you’ll be able to tell the difference.  (I even replaced my Seascapes in my own garden with Bentons this year. Seascapes are interesting, since you get dark, sweet, fragile everbearing berries — you’ll see them appear early in the market and then again in fall in Eugene — and they have the added bonus of one big berry that grows with the littler ones on each plant.  But they just don’t make as wonderful jam as Bentons.)

This year, I thought I’d shake it up.  I bought a half-flat of the legendary Hoods while in Portland last weekend.  These are berries that have their own Facebook page.  Developed in 1965 by OSU breeders, this variety is known for its tastiness, early showing, and, unfortunately, the susceptibility of the plant to various diseases.  Hence, cult status.  Live fast, die young.  Apparently, there are fewer and fewer growers willing to put up with this diva, so get ’em while you can.

I bought mine from two very pleasant ladies at the Valley Berry Farm stand at the little farmers market in Pioneer Courthouse Square.  That’s the stand, behind the dancing couple and the big band.  Yes, a big band.  Awesome.  Sorry, Eugene, PDX wins that round.

The Hoods are slightly darker than Bentons, and they held up perfectly in the car for the entire day, not something that Bentons could do so well.  The flavor is complex and not as sweet as other eating berries, but they managed to hold their shape well in my jam and in the fresh strawberry tart I made for dinner last night. I’m not sure I like the flavor as much as the Bentons, but they are a formidable rival.

Both jam and tart were infused with flowers.  No peonies, but aren’t these beautiful?  I added creme de violette and a touch of Hungarian barack apricot liqueur to the tart berries, and macerated the jam berries with elderflowers and rose geranium leaves.

Always know sometimes think it’s me, but you know I know and it’s a dream.  Next up, Bentons!