By Laurie Triplette
Southernism(s) of the Week:
Just Down the Road: An important concept of location and distance, totally dependent on the conversation between parties in the Southern locale. For instance, strawberry farms in north Mississippi are located just down the road in Pontotoc, Tupelo and Red Bank.
GOTTA HAVE ME SOME STRAWBERRIES. WHERE ARE THE GOOD ONES?
In my opinion, strawberries should be considered a form of the gods’ ambrosia. They are the most popular type of berry fruit in the world for good reason.
Fully ripe strawberries are delicious and good for us. They contain huge amounts of Vitamin C, and rank only behind grapes and raspberries in magnesium content. Strawberries also are chock full of antioxidants. Regular consumption of strawberries contributes to cardiovascular, joint, and intestinal health, by helping to lower inflammation. And there’s a fascinating, symbiotic relationship between strawberries, table sugar, and human blood-sugar levels.
As we all know, excessive intake of table sugar (serving size of 5-6 teaspoons or more) can result in undesirable blood-sugar spikes. But when offset by simultaneous consumption of about a cup of fresh strawberries (equivalent to 150 grams or 8 large berries), the blood sugar elevation from table sugar intake can be reduced because of the polyphenols contained in the berries. Scientists have speculated that regular consumption of strawberries can play an important role in regulating the body’s blood sugar response.
Strawberry season should be in full swing here in the South right now. The normal season runs from April to June in our region. In fact, all the strawberry festivals in Mississippi and Tennessee occurred in April. But this year everything that grows has been confused, as a result of the extra cold, extra long winter we all (barely) survived.
What to do, what to do…. We Southern Belles need fresh local strawberries for all the confections and beverages that populate our fancy brunch, tea, and wedding reception menus this time of year.
For about two weeks last month, we had some Louisiana and lower Mississippi strawberries in the Oxford grocery stores. They were in and out so fast I almost missed them, and now they’ve been replaced by California strawberries that look pretty. But pretty doesn’t always translate to good.
There’s a reason why. Most commercially grown strawberries, like tomatoes, have been genetically modified to make them more durable for shipping and lengthy storage in grocery stores. But durability does not equate to farm-fresh flavor. And bigger size tends to lead to diminished flavor.
Sometimes, we are better off buying flash-frozen fully ripe strawberries than buying “fresh” varieties shipped thousands of miles across the country.
The garden strawberry is a highly desirable, but costly crop —growing them is expensive and labor intensive. The crops must be rotated, and the yield is better when plants are propagated as runners through annual plasticulture (raised beds formed each year on different land, fumigated and covered with plastic to prevent weeds and erosion), or through perennial matted rows or mounds (generally for colder climates and with lower yields than plasticulture).
The strawberry plants are susceptible to leaf, root, and fruit disease, and are appealing to a number of pests. They must be fertilized regularly, and the strawberries must remain on the plant to full ripeness because they do not continue to ripen after picking. Once they start ripening, berries must be harvested by hand at least every other day, with overripe or rotted berries removed to minimize disease and pest problems.
Once picked, strawberries are fragile, requiring care in handling and storage. They should never be washed until ready to consume, and must be stored, unhulled (stems and green cap remaining at the tops) in sealed containers with 90-95 percent humidity, refrigerated at temperatures of 36-38˚F. Even handled and stored properly, they only last about 2 days before beginning to deteriorate, turn dark and mushy, and lose all their nutrients. Always look for glossy, bright red berries whose rows of tiny seeds are still light colored. Discard any others.
Representatives of Brownlee Farms of Red Bank told me they have a small supply of strawberries to sell direct from the farm through the end of May. Eubanks Produce of Lucedale, MS, is guaranteeing strawberries only through the end of this week.
Rumor has it that a few north Mississippi growers were offering strawberries at the farmers markets this past week, and might have more to offer in our stores within the next two weeks. One can always hope. The good news is that it’s not too late to plant our own strawberries to ensure a personal back-yard crop next year.
STRAWBERRY FROZEN GREEK YOGURT
I’ve been making up ice cream, sherbet and frozen yogurt with my tabletop ice cream maker since purchasing the device last summer. The only thing that beats my favorite raspberry ice cream is this frozen Greek yogurt made with fresh strawberries.
2 lb fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced (about 4 to 5 cups)
1-1/3 c white granulated sugar
2 tsp Chambord (raspberry liqueur), OPTIONAL
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 generous c of plain Greek yogurt
Toss the sliced strawberries in a large bowl with the sugar, optional Chambord, and lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and allow mixture to rest at room temperature for 2 hours to release the juices and blend the sugar. Stir again at least once during this time.
Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor. Add the vanilla and puree the mixture until smooth. Add the yogurt and pulse until completely blended. Place lid on the blender or processer and refrigerate the mixture overnight or at least 6 hours.
Freeze the mixture in ice cream maker according to maker’s directions. Be sure not to fill ice cream maker more than 2/3 full, allowing at least 2 inches from top to allow for expansion during the freezing process. (Any unfrozen mixture makes a great smoothie!)
Serve immediately, or scoop frozen yogurt into a plastic container, cover, and place into freezer until ready to serve. Remove from freezer and allow to warm up at room temperature about 15 minutes to soften the frozen yogurt enough for scooping.
COUSIN RITA’S STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE SOUP
Rita says she got this recipe from the Food Network. Serve as a light dessert to conclude a heavy meal, or as a starter before grilled fish or chicken entrees.
1 qt fresh strawberries hulled and quartered
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp Kosher salt
3 T dessert wine such as Moscoto (or apple juice if going non-alcoholic)
3 slices of pound cake, cut into half-inch cubes (store-bought or homemade)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese or mascarpone substitute, room temperature
1-1/2 tsp confectioners sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Combine strawberries with sugar, lemon juice and zest, first vanilla, and salt, in the order listed above. Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, at least 6 hours but preferably overnight.
Before serving, puree the strawberry-sugar mixture in blender. Add the dessert wine and blend enough to mix. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Make croutons of the cubed pound cake by placing cubes on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and baking at 375˚F in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until toasted golden brown. Turn the croutons over three times.
Chill bowl and beater in freezer for about 30 minutes. Whisk the heavy cream on medium speed with the mascarpone, confectioners sugar and vanilla extract until thickened. Refrigerate until ready to serve. NOTE: If unable to find mascarpone in your local store, make the mascarpone substitute by mixing 12 oz of cream cheese with 4-1/2 T sour cream and 3 T whipping cream. Measure out the amount you need for the recipe. The rest will last in the fridge for about a week.
When ready to serve the soup, ladle or pour the soup into 4 teacups or dessert bowls. Dollop some of the mascarpone cream topping on each, and scatter toasted croutons around the cream. Garnish each dish with a strawberry or a sprig of fresh mint.
FRESH STRAWBERRY CAKE
Most strawberry cake recipes call for boxed cake mix, strawberry-flavored gelatin, and red food coloring. The results are intolerable for those of us with food allergies and refined taste buds. My recipe below can be adjusted to be more sweet or more tart. But the overriding taste and color factor affecting the success of the recipe will be the quality of the fresh strawberries used. Our all-natural recipe calls for several preparation steps, and offers alternative frostings (see variations at end). Be sure to read through the entire recipe before jumping in!
2+lb fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced (about 4 to 5 cups)
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 to 1-1/2 c white granulated sugar
Combine the sliced berries with sugar and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and bring slowly to a boil on medium heat, mashing and stirring. Continue simmering for about 10-15 minutes. The liquid will become frothy and opaque, at which point the mixture should be stirred vigorously. When the foam diminishes and the liquid reduces within the saucepan, the mixture will begin to thicken. Turn off heat, stir to prevent sticking, and allow to rest in the saucepan until cooled. Set aside. (NOTE: Some recipes for preserves call for more sugar than strawberries, but this is plenty sweet for our cake.)
2-1/2 c cake flour
1-1/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp table salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
12 T butter (1-1/2 sticks, or 3/4 c), softened
1-1/2 c white granulated sugar
2 T white granulated sugar
3/4 c homemade strawberry preserves
4 large eggs
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c old-fashioned buttermilk
5-7 drops of red food coloring, OPTIONAL
Lightly grease bottom of two 9-inch cake pans with butter. Cut parchment circles to fit into the pans, and carefully position parchment over the buttered bottom. Smooth out the paper. Grease the parchment with butter and lightly dust with cake flour, shaking out excess. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. Mix the butter and sugar on medium speed until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time until completely blended. Beat in the vanilla extract and add the 3/4 c homemade preserves. Mix until completely blended. Add optional food coloring if a deep pink cake color is desired and not worried about allergy. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk, ending with the flour. Divide the batter equally between the two pans (I use a measuring cup). Spread batter evenly in each pan to remove excessive air bubbles.
Place both pans in preheated oven on center rack and bake about 20-30 minutes, until cake begins to pull away from pan sides and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove pans to wire racks to cool about 15 minutes before gently shaking loose. Either turn out onto waxed paper to continue cooling, or allow to cool completely in pans (as long as cakes are loosened from pan bottoms).
10 T butter (1 stick plus 2 T), softened
2-1/4 c (9 oz) confectioners sugar
12 oz (1-1/2 blocks) cream cheese, cut into18 pieces
Pinch of salt
1/4 c homemade strawberry preserves, OPTIONAL
Mix butter and confectioners sugar until fluffy. Add cream cheese pieces and pinch of salt; mix well until smooth. Beat in optional strawberry preserves, which will make the frosting VERY SWEET. Refrigerate about 15 minutes to firm up the frosting slightly.
To assemble, position one layer on cake plate. Slather top of the first cake layer with frosting. Add second layer and cover top and sides with remaining frosting. Keep frosted cake refrigerated, covered tightly, until ready to serve.
VARIATIONS: For a more moist cake, pierce entire top of each layer with toothpick at regular intervals, and skim with a thin layer of whipped cream before slathering with frosting. An alternate frosting would be buttercream frosting made without adding the strawberry preserves.
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).