It's not just your imagination. The strawberries this season really are better than usual.
And they seem to be absolutely everywhere: sparkling like jewels in fields of green; piled high in plastic containers on supermarket tables. Strawberries are so abundant right now, they practically come out of the spigot of your kitchen sink.
Theresa Hoen, vice president of Hoen's Greenhouse & Garden Center, said, "They're more prolific this year because the weather's been better. They are bigger and nicer this year, and hopefully they are going to last longer."
What is more, she said, the spring has been warmer than in recent years and heat makes the berries sweeter.
So you buy some strawberries and you put them on your cereal. Then you buy more, and you mix them into a fruit salad. Then you buy even more and you mix them into a smoothie.
But they are so amazingly delectable this year, and so extraordinarily plentiful, that maybe you have picked or bought more than you know what to do with. Maybe you want to eat some now and save some for later, after the season has ended.
Strawberries are easily frozen -- just rinse and thoroughly dry them, remove the stems, place the berries in a resealable plastic bag, press out all the air you can, and put them in the freezer. Once thawed (overnight in the refrigerator or for a couple of hours on the counter), they are almost as good as fresh for any kitchen use except, perhaps, the best: popping them straight into your mouth.
If you want to save your strawberries in a sweetly altered form, surely one of the most popular ways is to make a jam or preserves. I couldn't decide which one to make, so I figured, what the heck, I'll make both. It was an easy decision to make when they are this numerous, this inexpensive, and this good.
I first made freezer jam, which takes very little time and maybe even less effort. The only time-consuming part was crushing each berry, one at a time. I used a mortar and pestle, and aside from the inevitable strawberry-colored stains on the counter, everything went well. I added twice as much sugar as strawberries (four cups to two cups, crushed), and added a box of pectin that I had dissolved in water.
All that was left was to ladle the jam into jars that I had scrupulously sterilized in boiling water. The fresh-tasting jam was as sweet to eat as it was simple to make, and it will keep in a freezer for a year. It's perfect to pull out during the long months when strawberries are not as fresh.
Almost as simple, and even longer-lasting, is strawberry preserves. This is a treat that requires no pectin at all; I simply let six cups of whole strawberries (no crushing this time) sit in five cups of sugar for three hours. Then I boiled the mixture -- the sugar liquefies and boils -- and added the juice of one lemon.
The hardest part of making these preserves was letting them sit in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours without eating the whole thing. After they survived more or less intact, I heated them up again and poured them into boiled, sterilized jars. Then the jars went back into the boiling water for five minutes to seal them.
I had plenty of berries left, so I thought about the classic pairing of strawberries with rhubarb. But my wife doesn't like rhubarb, so I had to think of a medium so delicious she wouldn't mind it. Coffee cake would do nicely, and there are few problems in this world that cannot be overcome with a slice or two of good coffee cake.
I searched the Web and found a recipe that takes the idea of coffee cake literally: It has coffee in it. That turns out to be a great addition, as the coffee flavor blends with the cinnamon and adds a touch of bitterness to set off the natural sweetness of the strawberries and the brown-sugar crumble on top. It also makes the cake taste especially good with an accompanying a cup of coffee. And as an added bonus, the cake is deliciously moist.
One warning though: This is the kind of coffee cake where, if you take a small piece just to taste it, you'll find yourself going back for just another small piece, and then another, and then another.
Equally refreshing, though in a different way, is a strawberry yogurt soup. It is a perfect antidote to a blazing summer day, and simple to make -- unless you squeeze all the orange juice by hand, as I did. But even so, if you are tired out from all that squeezing you can cool off with a nice bowl of strawberry yogurt soup.
Along with the orange juice, it is made with yogurt, honey, and coarsely pureed strawberries. Just stir together and chill. That's all there is to it.
And finally, after making so many high-calorie items -- strawberries are sweet, but they seem to need more sugar to bring out the full sweetness -- I decided to cut back a bit with a strawberry spinach salad.
Strawberries and almonds sit atop a bed of fresh spinach, which is a fairly common basis for a salad. What makes this one special is its dressing. It pairs sesame seeds and poppy seeds with such unexpected ingredients as paprika, minced onion, and Worcestershire sauce.
Oh, and sugar. Even in a strawberry salad, you can't get away from the sugar.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Strawberry Freezer Jam
2 cups crushed strawberries (1 quart or more whole strawberries)
4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 (1 3/4 ounce) box powdered fruit pectin
In a large bowl, combine the strawberries and sugar. Mix well and let stand at room temperature 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the water and pectin in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir into the strawberries for 3 minutes.
Quickly ladle into sterilized freezer jars, leaving 1/2-inch at the top. Seal immediately. Let the jars stand at room temperature until the jam is set (up to 24 hours), and then refrigerate and use within 1 month or freeze up to 1 year.
Yield: 5 half-pints
Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook, by Tammy Algood
1 1/2quarts strawberries, washed and hulled
5 cups sugar
⅓ cup lemon juice
Combine the strawberries and sugar in a large saucepan. Cover and let stand at room temperature 3 hours.
Place over medium heat and slowly bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Add the lemon juice. Cook rapidly until the berries are clear and the syrup thickens, about 12 minutes.
Pour into a shallow pan and let stand 12-24 hours in the refrigerator. Shake the pan occasionally to distribute the berries through the syrup.
In a medium saucepan, reheat the berry mixture thoroughly. Pour into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the jar rims and then adjust the lids. Process in a boiling water bath 5 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack away from drafts.
Yield: 5 half-pints
Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook, by Tammy Algood
Rhubarb and Strawberry Coffee Cake
2 cups white sugar
1 cup cold coffee
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sliced strawberries
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 9x13-inch baking pan.
Beat white sugar and eggs together in a large bowl until smooth. Mix in coffee. Whisk flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a separate bowl. Beat the dry ingredients into the moist ingredients until just combined. Stir rhubarb and strawberries into the batter. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and sprinkle top with brown sugar and optional pecans.
Bake until the cake is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, 45-50 minutes.
Yield: 15 servings
Strawberry Yogurt Soup
16 ounces plain yogurt
2 pints strawberries, hulled and coarsely pureed
3 cups orange juice
1/4 cup PLUS 2 tablespoons honey
Empty the yogurt into a large bowl, but do not whisk it (if stirred too much, it will become watery). Whisk together the strawberry puree, orange juice, and honey. Gently stir into the yogurt. Chill before serving.
Yield: About 2 quarts
Source: The Frog Commissary Cookbook, by Steven Poses, Anne Clark, and Becky Roller
Strawberry Spinach Salad
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon minced onion
10 ounces fresh spinach, rinsed, dried, and torn into bite-sized pieces
1 quart strawberries, cleaned, hulled, and sliced
1/4 cup slivered almonds
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sugar, oil, vinegar, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, and onion. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
If you like, toast the almonds before using. In a large bowl, combine the spinach, strawberries, and almonds. Pour dressing over salad, and toss. Refrigerate 10-15 minutes before serving.
Yield: 4 servings