The Daily Gullet couldn't be more proud to present this exclusive excerpt from Russ Parson's upcoming book How to Pick a Peach.
Several springs ago I was desperate to get my hands on some fresh wild strawberries. Unless you are a star chef with a secret supplier who hand-carries them to your back door, this is not an easy thing to do. In the first place, there aren't many farmers who grow them anymore. The ones who do tend to have only a few because the plants take so much labor and bear so little fruit. The season is vanishingly short, and the fruit is incredibly fragile. This last turned out to be the biggest sticking point.
After much research I actually did track down someone who had them, in hand and in season, but he was several hundred miles away. I told him that I would be happy to pay for shipping, but he refused. They were too delicate to ship, he said. I would pay for overnight. No way, he said, they'd never get to me in decent shape. I persisted: I wouldn't hold him responsible for any less-than-perfect berries. Finally, he caved in -- probably just to get me off the phone. The next day, a big box arrived. I opened it, and there, nestled among shipping materials, was a smaller box. I opened that, and wrapped in a mound of tissue paper was a tiny pint-size box. I opened that and found the most fragrant jam I've ever smelled. Even with all that care, the berries had been smashed beyond recognition.
And therein lies the paradox of the strawberry. In its wild state, it is a highly seasonal, wildly flavorful fruit that is as fragile as a soap bubble. Yet in our passion for it, we have managed to turn this dreamy berry into a year-round staple as resilient as Styrofoam and only a little more flavorful. It wasn't so long ago that strawberries were a food you anticipated all through the winter and then gorged on in a brief frenzy that was a ritual of spring. Today it's a year-round garnish, the parsley of the breakfast plate. You can buy fresh, American-grown strawberries at least eleven months out of the year. More than 80 percent of them come from California, which produces more than a billion pounds in total. That means the strawberries have to be able to withstand a four-day truck ride to make it to the East Coast.
To provide a year-round supply, farmers harvest strawberries from one end of the state to the other, beginning in San Diego and Orange County in the south right around Christmas and gradually moving north as the season progresses and the weather warms, finishing up around Watsonville, just south of San Francisco, around Thanksgiving. In a good year, one with a mild and extended summer, strawberries never go out of season.
And yet finding a berry with true flavor -- the kind that stops you in your tracks when you taste it -- just keeps getting harder. There is a solution, though. Despite the fact that California has an overwhelming commercial edge, strawberries are one of the most widely grown farmers' market fruits. And this is one case where the old "buy local; buy seasonal" mantra really pays off.
Locally grown berries, which don't have to make a crosscountry trek before you can eat them, will almost always be juicier and more flavorful than their commercial counterparts -- even if they're grown from the same variety. And fortunately, strawberries are almost uniquely fitted for small farmers. Although they demand a lot of extremely tedious handwork to grow, they offer among the highest cash returns to farmers.
So lucrative are strawberries that even in these days of consolidation and ever bigger farms, it's possible for a grower to make a living on less than ten acres. That's why strawberries are the overwhelming favorite of urban farmers -- those hardy souls who practice agriculture in the small, often temporary open spaces found in cities. You can find farmers growing strawberries on a couple of acres under power lines, and you can find them tending their fields on land that is being cleared for housing developments (in these cases, strawberry fields are definitely not forever).
This friendliness to small-scale, transient farming is the reason behind one of the more interesting chapters in the history of American strawberry farming. At the turn of the century, when the California strawberry industry was just becoming established, it was heavily populated by Japanese immigrants. The labor-intensive, highly profitable farming was ideal for growers with extended families. Furthermore, these growers were able to turn another of the strawberry's weaknesses to their advantage. Strawberries are susceptible to all kinds of pests, many of which were not controlled until after the advent of chemical pesticides after World War II. Verticillium wilt is particularly vexing. Until the 1950s the soilbound fungus that causes the wilt would kill any strawberry field that remained planted in the same location for more than a couple of years. This vulnerability forced strawberry growers to be a highly mobile lot, and most of them rented land rather than owning it.
The situation was ideal for Japanese American growers, because in the early part of the twentieth century, it was illegal for them to own land in California. These growers turned two negatives into a positive by focusing on strawberries. A survey taken in 1910 found that almost 80 percent of the strawberry growers in Los Angeles County were Japanese American. When the Central California Berry Growing Association, the first strawberry marketing co-op, was founded in 1917, the bylaws required that half of the board of directors be Japanese American -- an extraordinary move during a period so virulently anti-Japanese.
Certainly, today's small strawberry growers do not face anywhere near the same hurdles as the Japanese American farmers did a century ago. But that is not to say that their lot is a walk in the park. In particular, they have to deal with sometimes cranky neighbors, for whom the realities of agriculture -- dust, early mornings, lots of workers coming and going, occasional spraying -- do not quite mesh with their idea of the good life. But because strawberries are so valued by fruit lovers -- especially good strawberries, picked ripe and shipped only across town rather than across the country -- these farmers are able to earn enough to make it worthwhile.
When you do get those perfect berries, remember that they almost always taste best uncooked. The red color of berries comes from the pigment anthocyanin, which is not heat stable. If you cook strawberries by themselves, that lovely crimson color will turn to a bruised purple. But acidity will stabilize the pigment, so add some lemon or orange juice (or bake them with rhubarb), and the color will remain red. You can "cook" strawberries without heat, though. Sugar draws moisture out of strawberries and mixes with the extracted juice to form a delicious sauce. In some cases, this can be bad -- if you want the berries to remain slightly firm, don't sugar them too far in advance of serving, or they'll go limp. In other cases, the sugaring is a big help -- sugar strawberries for ice cream well in advance of freezing, and because of the extracted moisture, you won't end up with ice cubes in your ice cream.
WHERE THEY'RE GROWN: The vast majority of commercial strawberries are grown in California. But strawberries are one of the leading "small-farm" crops around the country. Varieties that are grown for the local market -- without the necessity of shipping -- are almost guaranteed to be better than most commercial berries.
HOW TO CHOOSE: There are a lot of little indicators of strawberry quality, but the most important is probably the simplest: smell. Great strawberries have a distinctive candied aroma that you can't miss. Beyond that, the berries should be completely red (the exact shade of red will depend on the variety); avoid any with white tips. The green hull should look fresh, not dried out. The berries should be glossy, without any matte spots where the flesh has started to break down. Always look at the underside of the berry basket -- that's where crushed berries may be hiding and where spoilage will start. It's not at all uncommon to pick up a basket of berries that are beautiful on top but are as gray and fuzzy as a freshman dorm refrigerator underneath.
HOW TO STORE: This is a tough one, because refrigerating damages the flavor of strawberries, but the fruit is so tender that not chilling will lead to rapid spoilage. The best solution is to buy berries from a local farmer and eat them the same day without putting them in the refrigerator. Failing that, transfer the berries to a plastic bag (to prevent excessive drying) lined with a paper towel (to absorb excessive moisture) and refrigerate them.
HOW TO PREPARE: Don't rinse strawberries until just before you're ready to use them; the moisture will speed decay. And don't remove the green hulls until after you've rinsed the berries. Those caps prevent the berries from soaking up too much water. Once they've been rinsed, gently blot them dry with a paper towel.
ONE SIMPLE DISH: Whisk together a bottle of light red wine or rosé and a cup of sugar. Add a split vanilla bean. Cut up 2 pints of strawberries and add them to the wine mixture. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Ladle the strawberry soup into bowls and serve each with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a crisp cookie.
Ole's Swedish Hotcakes with Quick Strawberry Compote
Of all the breakfasts in the world, this recipe, adapted from one prepared at the Little River Inn just south of the town of Mendocino, California, is one of my favorites. The pancakes are served with a big spoonful of strawberry compote in the center. To really gild the lily, you can top that with a spoonful of whipped cream.
12 tablespoons (1˝ sticks) butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
Grated zest of 1 orange
3 large eggs, separated
Quick Strawberry Compote (recipe follows)
Melt the butter and let it cool slightly.
Meanwhile, stir together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the milk, half-and-half and orange zest. The mixture will be very liquid; don't worry.
Whisk in the egg yolks. This will thicken the batter slightly. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and stir them gently into the batter. (You don't need to fold them; the batter is not that delicate.) This will thicken the batter to about the consistency of a good homemade eggnog. Whisk in the melted butter. (The recipe can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated, tightly covered, overnight.)
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until drops of water skitter across the surface. Slowly pour ˝ cup of the batter in the center of the skillet, forming as much of a circle as you can. (Using a ladle or measuring cup with a lip makes this easier.)
Cook until the bottom of the pancake is lightly browned and the top begins to look slightly dry, about 3 minutes. Flip the pancake and cook until it feels somewhat firm when pressed lightly in the center, about 2 minutes more. Remove from the pan and keep warm in a 200-degree oven as you continue with the rest of the batter. Serve 2 pancakes per person, with a generous portion of compote.
Quick Strawberry Compote
MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
1/2 pound strawberries, rinsed and hulled
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
Place the strawberries, sugar and orange juice in a food processor and pulse 4 or 5 times just to chop the berries small. Do not puree.
Transfer the mixture to a small nonstick skillet and cook over medium-high heat until it begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Set aside until ready to use. Serve warm or at room temperature.
By preparing preserves in small batches, the jam will cook quickly enough that the fruit retains its fresh taste. This recipe works best by weight. (How else would you know if you were a few strawberries short of a pint?) Use equal amounts of fruit and sugar. We've listed approximate volume measures if you don't have a scale (2 pints of strawberries weigh about 2 pounds).
If you haven't made jam before, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the basics on pages 109–11. You do need to sugar the berries the night before.
MAKES FIVE 8-OUNCE JARS
2 pounds strawberries, rinsed, hulled and cut into bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)
2 pounds sugar (about 4 cups)
Juice of 1 lemon or orange
Combine the strawberries and sugar in a large pot and heat slowly until the juices are clear, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon (or orange) juice, then cover loosely and let stand overnight.
The next day, get everything ready for canning. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and sterilize 5 sets of jars and lids, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the jars and lids in the hot water until you're ready to use them.
Heat 2 cups of the strawberries and juice in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the strawberries start to simmer, cook, stirring often, until the preserves test done (see page 111), 3 to 5 minutes.
Ladle the jam into the sterilized jars, filling to within 1/4 inch of the rims. Cover each jar with a lid and fasten the ring tight. Set aside and repeat with the remaining strawberries and juice.
Seal according to instructions on page 111.
How to Pick a Peach is available on Amazon.com. Please support good food writing, Russ Parsons and the Society, by using this link.
One of the foremost food journalists of the nation, Russ Parsons is the food and wine columnist of the Los Angeles Times. He has been writing about food and agriculture for more than twenty years and has won many James Beard Awards for his newspaper articles, as well as the IACP/Bert Greene Award for distinguished writing. He lives in California, which produces more than half of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country.