Eatin’ in Season

It's strawberry season again. Though imported strawberries are available in grocery stores throughout the year, many prefer the taste of local berries, which are available in the Southern Appalachians only in the spring. Ask farmers market shoppers the reasons for their preference, and they'll cite the sweeter, more intense flavor and the redder flesh of naturally ripened fruit. (Local varieties may be smaller, but the berries do not have white areas or empty spaces.)

Danny McConnell sells baskets of ripe, local strawberries at Asheville City Market. Photo courtesy of ASAP

But sought-after local strawberries may be available for a shorter time than usual this year, due to weather patterns.  Be prepared to seek out local strawberries as soon as you can, and in as great of a quantity as you can, beginning now. As problems go, having to stock up on strawberries is a sweet one.

If you have any doubts about how much can be done with strawberries bought in bulk assuming you can resist just eating them all fresh consider the menu at the West End Bakery. They're putting strawberries from South Carolina and Flying Cloud Farm in Fairview to an astounding array of uses. Local strawberries and rhubarb grown at the bakery are combined in pies. Strawberries appear in their cupcakes, scones, muffins, and coffeecake. More local fruit is highlighted in strawberry-lemon tarts and vegan strawberry-chocolate pudding.

Strawberries make an appearance in savory dishes too. West End prepares salads using Thatchmore Farm greens, grown in Leicester and strawberries. There's the strawberry, bacon, artichoke and hazelnut salad. There's also the strawberry, pecan and goat cheese salad, featuring cheese from Three Graces Dairy in Marshall.

Other restaurants are also serving strawberries as a part of Get Local, a program of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project that brings together restaurants around the region to highlight a single seasonal ingredient in their own unique dishes.

Ultimate Ice Cream uses strawberries in the handmade frozen desserts. Laurey's is preparing fruit salads with local fruit, classic strawberry shortcake and other strawberry specials. Find information on Get Local and participating restaurants at www.asapconnections.org.

If you want to prepare strawberry dishes yourself, West End shares a recipe even an amateur baker can attempt: strawberry vanilla muffins. We've also collected simple tips for freezing strawberries. Buy extra, preserve them and you can keep enjoying strawberries throughout the year.

Preserving Strawberries

Strawberries' shapes and textures are changed by freezing, but frozen berries are perfect for baked goods, sauces, preserves, jams, smoothies, and cocktails and mixed drinks.Wash berries in cold water and pat dry. Cut off caps, stems and molded or discolored parts. Seal prepared berries in an airtight container or zippered plastic bag and store in the freezer. Optionally, to maintain the berries' color, sprinkle with lemon juice. To better maintain the berries' shape, spread them on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight before combining in a container. Or, you may wish to sprinkle on 3/4 cup sugar per quart of berries, or reduce a simple syrup of sugar and water to coat the fruit. Strawberry freezer jam is another easy way to preserve strawberries, even for cooks who aren't ready to brave canning. No serious cooking is required. Combine crushed berries, sugar and pectin, according to instructions found on most pectin packages. Store the jam in the freezer.

Strawberry Vanilla Muffins

(Courtesy of West End Bakery)

Makes 10 jumbo muffins.3 cups all purpose flour2 teaspoons baking powder1 teaspoon baking soda1 teaspoon salt1 cup organic cane sugar cup oil2 eggs, whisked1cup whole milk2 cups strawberries 2 teaspoons vanillaTo make strawberry cheesecake muffins, add 5 ounces cream cheese, chopped in to small pieces.Sift dry ingredients together.Mix wet ingredients.Gently combine wet and dry ingredients.Scoop into greased or lined muffin pans.Bake at 350 degrees until tops bounce back when gently pressed with a finger.CAPTIONSNate Allen from the Knife & Fork restaurant in Spruce Pine gives a cooking demonstration at Asheville City Market and makes inventive use of strawberries. He grills them with local meat and asparagus. Danny McConnell sells baskets of ripe, local strawberries at Asheville City Market.Pots of strawberry plants for sale at Asheville City Market provide ornamental and edible pleasures.

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