STRAWBERRIES are the sweetest harbingers of spring. Members of the rose family, strawberries have grown wild in Europe and the Americas for centuries, and they have been cultivated since the 13th century.
Strawberries are classified into two hybrid categories: springbearing and everbearing. Springbearing berries such as Chandler and Sequoia produce most of their fruit in the early part of the season, which begins in late March or April. Everbearing varieties, such as Fern, Seascape and Hecker, produce throughout the duration of the season, which lasts until October.
Organic farmer Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport grows several types of strawberries, including the difficult-to-find Hood variety.
"I like to classify strawberries by two flavor dimensions," he says. "The sweetness, which is gauged by sugar content, and volatile oils, which provide that essence of berry flavor."
Cochran describes the popular, early-season Chandler as having low to medium sugar content with high flavor, while his Seascapes are high sugar, low flavor.
Hood, which he feels are one of the best all-around varieties, are primarily grown in the Northwest.
Although they have a magnificent flavor and sweetness, they are not widely available commercially because they are small, prone to bruising and not particularly attractive.
As consumers, we're incorrectly encouraged to think bigger means better, and that a flawless appearance is equivalent to superior flavor.
Commercial varieties are bred for firm texture, so they hold up during shipping and on the shelf, says Cochran.
They have a lower sugar content because the more sugar, the more quickly they deteriorate. This is also why commercial berries are often harvested before they are fully ripe.
The soil in which commercial strawberries grow is generally treated with methyl bromide, an all-purpose pesticide and herbicide.
Not only does this chemical seep into groundwater and destroy the ozone layer, it is also detrimental to the health of farm workers.
In addition, strawberries are very porous and can retain a high concentration of pesticide residue. Just one more reason to buy organic strawberries.
Sustainable strawberry growers rely on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and predator mites to control insect pests. Sometimes they plant flowers such as roses, baby's breath and sunflowers to help attract beneficial insects to strawberry beds.
If you're able to make it home from the market with any strawberries left over (I usually manage to hoover down the entire basket en route), refrigerate them uncovered in a container lined with a paper towel. Berries may dehydrate when left in their little plastic baskets, and storing them in a plastic bag renders them mushy.
Remove any berries with soft spots, as they will spread rot to the other berries, and don't rinse them until just before using. Berries, like mushrooms, absorb water like crazy.
Unlike other berries, which are delicious when cooked, strawberries don't lend themselves well to heat.
"I never cook strawberries, I don't even make jam with them," says Mary Jo Thoresen, chef and co-owner with her husband of Oakland's JoJo restaurant. "Heat really leaches the color and flavor out."
The former Chez Panisse pastry chef instead prefers to use fresh berries as a sweet counterpoint to desserts.
Right now we're doing a strawberry-rhubarb tartlet. We make a rhubarb marmalade, using two pounds of fruit to approximately one cup of sugar, and cook it down to a spreadable compote consistency. Then we fill the tartlet shells with pastry cream spoon on some of the marmalade, and top it with fresh strawberries."
Swanton Berry Farm's strawberries are available at the Berkeley farmers' market.
STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM WITH CHOCOLATE-DIPPED STRAWBERRIES
Recipe by Kathleen Berman of Mixx Restaurant in Santa Rosa; published in "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
1/2 pound fresh organic strawberries, stems removed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
Chocolate-dipped strawberries, for garnish (recipe follows)
Process strawberries and sugar in a food processor or blender until the sugar is dissolved and mixture is no longer gritty.
Pour in cream. Run processor or blender until mixture thickens slightly and bubbles pop slowly on top. Do not overprocess. The result should be creamy, not chalky. Use the pulse switch as the mixture nears the proper texture.
Turn mixture into an ice cream machine. Process according to manufacturer's instructions; place in freezer until firm.
Serve in martini glasses, garnish with whole strawberries or Chocolate dipped strawberries. Serves 4 to 6.
Per Serving: 366 Calories; 22g Fat; 2g Protein; 43g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 82mg Cholesterol; 23mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1/2 Fruit; 41/2 Fat; 21/2 Other Carbohydrates.
Approximately 8 ounces chocolate (don't use molding chocolate or tempered chocolate)
1 pint organic strawberries, with stems intact
Line a cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper.
Chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a double boiler or small bowl set on top of a pot filled with water. Make sure that the bowl doesn't float and that the water can't splash into the chocolate.
Melt chocolate over low heat, stirring gently as chocolate begins to melt. When chocolate is almost fully melted, remove from heat and continue stirring until smooth and satiny.
Making sure they are completely dry and cool, dip the strawberries in the warm chocolate. Place them on the lined cookie sheet and refrigerate until chocolate sets. Store at room temperature and eat within 24 hours.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org