Market Mondays – Strawberries

The time is upon us. If you’re like me, you’ve walked past time huge, hard, tasteless red supermarket strawberries all winter in anticipation of June and Ontario strawberry season. Nothing beats the smell or flavour of an Ontario strawberry, ripe, just picked, and warm from the sun.

Strawberries are a member of the rose family, and while the old bit of trivia claims that strawberries are the only fruit to have their seeds on the outside (which they’re not – cashew fruit and pineapple both have their seeds on the outside) those little yellow things that most people think are the seeds are actually the fruit; the red flesh bit we love to eat is the receptacle.

Dating back to ancient Rome, the strawberry as we know it originated in Europe, and was cultivated in 13th century France for medicinal purposes. The first American species of strawberry was cultivated in 1835 and strawberries grow in every province and every state in Canada and the US. While we normally think of June and July as strawberry season, many farmers now grow a number of “everbearing” varieties that will bear fruit from June until the first frost. Vendors at many Toronto farmers markets (including Nathan Phillips Square and Metro Hall) usually have berries right up until October. There’s been many a year when I’ve had fresh Ontario berries for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. And if you’re wondering why it’s better to buy local berries, consider what happens to berries from California before they get here.

1 cup of strawberries has 140% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and contains only 55 calories. (It’s the whipped cream that gets you!)

When selecting strawberries, look for firm, red berries with the green caps still attached. They will keep in the fridge for 1 – 2 days, but do not wash them until just before you eat or cook them, as they will absorb water and get mushy. To freeze strawberries, wash them, remove the leaves and lay them on in a single layer on a cookie sheet (this will keep them from freezing together in a big clump), then place in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, transfer them to freezer bags.

Strawberries with Cracked Black Pepper and Sweetened Ricotta
from Christopher Palik, Executive Chef, L-Eat Catering and Paese Ristorante

1 pint of Ontario strawberries
1 tbsp of white sugar
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 250 ml container of Ricotta cheese
2 tbsp honey

Makes enough for dessert for 2 people

Start by gently running the strawberries under cold water to rinse and lay them on a couple of layers of paper towels to dry. With the paring knife remove the green tops and cut each strawberry in half. In the mixing bowl toss the strawberries with the sugar and let sit for 15 minutes.

In two small bowls divide the strawberries and what ever juice they gave up. Place a heaping spoon of ricotta on top, drizzle with the honey and sprinkle over the cracked pepper.

This dish will depend on the quality of the ingredients you buy, the strawberries should be as ripe as possible, the pepper freshly ground and the ricotta fresh if possible.

Strawberry Jam Two Ways
I came up with this last year when I wanted a strawberry jam that was a little more glamorous. Note the low sugar-to-fruit ratio – you must use the pectin for this recipe or it will not set.

9 cups strawberries (3 pounds)
5 cups sugar
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 package Certo or other pectin

Wash, top and roughly chop the berries and add to a large pot with 1 cup of sugar. Mash lightly and allow the berries to macerate for about an hour.

Prepare jars, lids and rings by placing them in boiling water and then keeping them in a warm oven (275°F) upside down until you are ready to fill them.

Add the remaining sugar and lemon to the large pot with the berries and cook over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes. Add pectin and continue to boil. Skim foam from top occasionally but do not stir too much.

When jam reaches 220°F on a candy thermometer, spoon some onto a chilled plate. You’re looking for the jam to quickly form a soft skin.

At this point, you can fill your jars or add one of the following flavour variations.

Balsamic Pepper Strawberry Jam

1 Tbsp crushed black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh chopped tarragon
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Rose and Vanilla Strawberry Jam

1/8 cup rose water
the seeds of a fresh vanilla pod
2 tsp ground cardamom

After adding either flavour variation, let the mixture reach 220°F again and check for both flavour and set before filling jars.

Follow the standard procedure for sealing and sterilizing jars.