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Strawberry serenade

It's the season to savor the sweet, sensuous fruit at the Strawberry Festival. Oh, and while you're at it, take a flat or two home for recipes and, perchance, romance.

[Times photo:
Jill Sagers]

photo

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


The Beatles sang about them in fields forever, Shakespeare referenced them in Henry V and sweethearts have always praised their ability, especially when dipped in chocolate, to kindle the flames of romance.

There is no doubting the popularity of the strawberry.

The luscious strawberry has been put on a pedestal since first cultivated in ancient Rome. The name crops up in many places as an homage to the fruit. Towns in California and Arizona named themselves after it, there's a bird called a strawberry finch and a boo-boo on a child's knee is often referred to as a strawberry.

Then there's Jenni A.M. Merrifield of Burnaby, British Columbia, who goes by the name StrawberryJAMM thanks to her initials and her strawberry blond hair. In high school, her wallpaper was adorned with strawberries and a couple years ago, she dressed her baby son Nathan in berry motif for Halloween.

Her dedication to the fruit manifested itself in a Web site, http://www.jamm.com/strawberries/facts.html, that has become a touchstone for strawberryphiles all over the world.

The 32-year-old software application designer says she established the Original Strawberry Facts Page as a lark in the mid-1990s but is now often looked to for expert advice. She makes it clear that everything she knows is on the site, but still she gets e-mail from people in Japan or Jamaica with questions about growing strawberry plants. And why not? There are few sites on the Web with more links and more information about strawberries.

Every state in the union grows strawberries and at least half of them stage annual festivals to mark the harvest. If you're headed up North this May or June, look for fruit fetes in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, among others. Strawberries can be grown in many kinds of soil and don't need much fertilizer to thrive, which is why they are found throughout the United States and the rest of the planet.

We have our own center of all things Strawberry in Plant City, often referred to as the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. (Wepion, Belgium, claims the title of Strawberry Capital of the World and harvests its berries in the summer.) Beginning Thursday and continuing through March 11, the Florida Strawberry Festival honors the small berry with the big taste at the festival grounds in Plant City.

"For me, they are a little bit of a decadent fruit," says Laura York, former WTSP-Ch. 10 meteorologist and author of a new cookbook on strawberries. "They come for a brief amount of time and when they are here they are the best and you can't get enough of them."

York, along with her business partner, Karen Fate, developed a collection of inviting recipes for their self-published Simple Strawberry Sensations. From brunch ideas to splashy beverages to gift ideas, Sensations offers easy recipes that York promises will earn compliments for the chef.

"We wanted to write a warm, friendly, folksy, kick-your-shoes-off cookbook," York says. "Most cooks can do these recipes and most cooks have this stuff in their homes. I hate it when you have to get new equipment and then you don't use it again."

York and Fate began working on the cookbook in earnest last fall when York left behind morning TV news and an alarm clock that rang at 3 a.m. When she worked for Channel 10 she also did cooking segments, and now she is developing new 2-minute cooking spots she hopes will be syndicated around the nation.

The duo wanted to finish the book in time for the natural publicity of the Strawberry Festival but that meant they tested recipes at a time when strawberries weren't in season in Florida and were at the tail end of the harvest in California.

"We paid 42 bucks a flat in October for California strawberries and even at that price we had trouble finding good ones," York says. "Now we can get a flat from Plant City for $12.98."

Sky-high prices notwithstanding, York tested her recipes and finished the book. The recipes had been developed by York over the years.

"Basically, I am a scientist at heart," York says. "I'm a meteorologist, and cooking is chemical and that's part of what interests me about cooking and developing recipes."

Besides being a scientist, York is also an award-winning cook with hundreds of blue ribbons garnered at fairs in Florida and her home state of Kentucky. Her strawberry salad was the Grand Champion Winner of the Florida Strawberry Festival cooking competition in 1989.

York says the trick to using strawberries in recipes is to judge the amount of moisture you are adding by way of the fruit. The more you cut the berries or break them apart, she explains, the more moisture you create. For instance, a cup of strawberries cut in half and added to a salad will add less juice than a cup of pureed strawberries. This is especially crucial when adding strawberries to baked items.

York will have a booth at the festival and will be selling and autographing the book. Volunteers from St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Carrollwood, Friends from the Library in Plant City and the Tampa Bay Knights soccer league will help staff the booth and share the profits.

Though she likes to eat strawberries au naturel, York is also partial to her strawberry-almond tart recipe which is "not overly sweet and has a very strong, nutty flavor."

"I just think it's divine," she says. "The strawberry-stuffed french toast is really a killer and can wow a house guest . . . or a husband."

She also urges buyers of the book to try the Spicy & Sweet Strawberry Bar-b-que Sauce.

"It just rocks," she says.

So do strawberries.

Simple Strawberry Sensations is available at major bookstores for $12.95. It can also be ordered by phone at (813) 832-4482 or online at http://www.simple-sensations.com.

If you go

The Florida Strawberry Festival begins Thursday and continues through March 11 at the festival grounds in Plant City, off Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County. Gates open at 10 a.m. and close at 10:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $7 for everyone 11 and older. Parking is $3. Activities include a midway, food booths, contests and live entertainment. Call (813) 752-9194 or log on to http://www.flstrawberryfestival.com for more information. A schedule of entertainment and other information will be in Thursday's Weekend section.

How to buy strawberries

There are a number of ways to ensure that you're buying good quality strawberries. Some things to consider:

  • Dry, firm, red berries are best. Caps should be green and look fresh.
  • A box with stains on the bottom may indicate that some of the berries are overripe. If the strawberries are in a plastic basket, check the bottom to make sure none of the berries are crushed or moldy.
  • Avoid berries with white tops. The white indicates the berries are not ripe. Unlike some other fruit, such as bananas, strawberries ripen only a little after they are picked. Likewise, pale, greenish or yellowish fruit is also unripe and may be hard and sour.
  • Do not buy strawberries if there is any mold on them. Mold spreads quickly on berries, so the whole box will become moldy quickly.
  • Use berries within three days of buying them. Leave them unwashed until you use them. Berries absorb water from washing, which causes them to lose flavor.

Sources: Florida Strawberry Growers Association and California Strawberry Commission.

Tasty Strawberry-Stuffed French Toast

  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 8 slices bread, white or whole wheat
  • 3 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 4 tablespoons butter, optional
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, vanilla extract and cinnamon; mix until smooth. Spread one side of each slice of bread evenly with the cream cheese mixture. On the cream cheese side of four slices of bread, layer with some sliced strawberries evenly over the surface of each slice. Top each slice with a remaining slice of bread, pressing the cream cheese side down onto the strawberries. Press together gently to seal berries inside sandwich.

In a shallow bowl, combine the eggs and milk; mix well and set aside.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Spray a large baking sheet lightly with cooking spray and place in oven. Spray a large non-stick skillet with cooking spray or melt 1 tablespoon butter in skillet over medium-high heat.

Dip strawberry sandwiches into the egg mixture, turning to soak each side. Place soaked sandwich in the hot skillet and cook on each side until browned. Remove sandwich from skillet and place on baking sheet in warm oven and repeat until all sandwiches are cooked.

Just before serving, cut each sandwich diagonally; top with remaining strawberries and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar. Serve with Warm Strawberry Syrup (see recipe) or maple syrup. Serves four.

Source: "Simple Strawberry Sensations" by Laura York (Simple Sensations Marketing, 2001, $12.95).

Warm Strawberry Syrup

  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice or Grand Marnier
  • 3/4 cup pureed strawberries

In a small saucepan, combine the maple syrup, orange juice and pureed strawberries. Heat mixture over medium heat for 5 minutes or until thickened slightly, stirring frequently. Serve while warm. Makes 11/2 cups.

Source: "Simple Strawberry Sensations" by Laura York (Simple Sensations Marketing, 2001, $12.95).

Superb Strawberry Almond Tart

Tart shell:

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup almonds, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Almond filling:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup almonds, finely ground
  • 3/4 cup whipping cream
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Strawberry topping:

  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves
  • 1 tablespoon almond liqueur
  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled and halved
  • 1 cup whipped cream or whipped topping, thawed
  • 1 strawberry, whole with cap

For the shell, preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor, combine the flour, 1/2 cup almonds and powdered sugar; mix well. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Quickly press the mixture firmly into an 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and loosen slightly.

For the almond filling, preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and 1/4 cup almonds; mix well. Add the whipping cream, egg, vanilla extract, almond extract and salt; mix well. Pour mixture into the cooled tart shell.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until browned. Cool the tart in a pan on a wire rack for 1 hour.

For the strawberry topping, combine the apricot preserves and almond liqueur in a small saucepan and mix well. Cook over medium heat until blended, stirring constantly and removing any large pieces of apricot.

Arrange the strawberry halves on top of the tart with cut sides down. Spoon the apricot mixture over the strawberries.

Remove the tart from the pan. Spoon dollops of whipped cream around the edge and place one collop in the center. Top the center dollop with whole strawberry. Serves eight.

Source: "Simple Strawberry Sensations" by Laura York (Simple Sensations Marketing, 2001, $12.95).

Spicy & Sweet Strawberry Bar-b-que Sauce

  • 2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1/3 cup strawberry preserves
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons green onions, chopped

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Pour the sauce into a jar and chill, covered, until ready to use.

Makes 2 cups.

Source: "Simple Strawberry Sensations" by Laura York (Simple Sensations Marketing, 2001, $12.95).

Fabulous Strawberry Muffins

  • 21/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 11/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped
  • Additional sugar for topping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray or line muffin cups with paper cupcake liners.

In a large bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt; stir until all ingredient are well-blended. In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, butter, eggs and vanilla. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour liquid mixture in and the strawberries.

Using a large spoon, gently fold ingredients just until moist; do not overmix.

Spoon the batter evenly into 12 muffin cups. Sprinkle each muffin with about 1/2 teaspoon sugar, if desired. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

Source: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/strawberries/.

Strawberry and Spinach Salad

  • 1 pint fresh strawberries
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach (can use washed and bagged variety)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 11/2 tablespoons minced green onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup balsamic or cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Wash strawberries under cool running water. Remove caps and set aside to drain. Wash spinach and remove large tough stems. Tear large leaves into small pieces. Drain. In a medium bowl combine remaining ingredients and whisk together.

Slice strawberries into halves or quarters and place in a large bowl. Add dry spinach. Pour dressing over all and toss. Serves eight.

Source: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/strawberries/.

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