"I forgot about the red fingers," my mother said as a little boy rushed past us in elation, stained from smile to sneakers with sunny strawberry sweetness.
"So did I," said our friend, looking down at her white T-shirt and khaki pants. We all shrugged and continued through the leafy rows, looking for the perfect spot to begin.
Picking your own strawberries is great fun, but there is a lot to keep track of. Some places charge to use their containers; others prefer that you bring your own. Hours, payment methods and microclimates ensure that you'll never have the same experience twice. And, oh yes, the fierce sun that's responsible for the berries' decadent sweetness? It also burns shoulders and noses. I remembered this several hours later, about the time my skin was turning a bright pink.
A small price to pay, however, for a bounty of summer fruit that's easily preserved and universally beloved. Frozen, strawberries are self-contained Popsicles; dehydrated, they become chewy candy. , perhaps the most traditional option, they ooze domestic bliss.
Whatever your method of choice, you will have a higher-quality product if you buy local, and the most economical option is usually to pick your own. According to this aptly-named site, there are about a dozen such farms within an hour's drive of Catonsville, and their strawberries range in price from $1.30 per pound (Lohr's Orchard in Churchville) to $2.49 per pound (Larriland Farm in Woodbine.) My most recent trip was to Brad's Produce in Churchville ($1.50), but I've also had great experiences at Baugher's in Westminster ($2.09) and Huber's in Kingsville ($2.00.)
Two important pieces of advice when picking your own fruit: first, do NOT get in the car without having spoken to someone at the farm first. You want to confirm that they are open for picking, what the conditions are like (thin to plentiful) and check their policies (price, hours, containers, etc.)
Second, have a concrete plan for processing your fruit soon after picking it. Soft fruits like strawberries are especially delicate, bruising easily in the refrigerator and becoming unusable in a matter of days.
Once you're back home, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Strawberry Smoothie (for beginners and health nuts)
Smoothie purists like me start with frozen fruit, so we don't have to dilute with ice cubes. In fact, freezing strawberries is probably the easiest of all preserving methods. Simply wash them, slice off the tops and freeze them on a tray first; when they're rock-solid, transfer to plastic bags.
For a smoothie, put about a cup of frozen berries in a blender. Add whatever sweetner you like (I use half a frozen banana, but others like honey or maple sugar.) Pour over just enough milk to cover the berries; whole and almond milk are good choices. Blend until smooth. That's it! I like to top mine with ground flaxseed for added protein and crunch.
Strawberry Shortcake (for cooks and traditionalists; adapted from The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, circa 1973.)
My grandmother lived on a farm during the Depression, and as a young girl she never dreamed that strawberry shortcake for dinner was her parents' way of cutting back. Nor could I express anything but sheer envy when she told me about that family tradition!
It might not surprise you that I also have strong opinions about shortcake, too: I love this version, which is similar to a scone in density but still retains enough lightness to let the berries rule.
Sift together 2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cut in 1/2 cup butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Beat 1 egg with 2/3 cup cream; add to dry mixture, stirring just to moisten. Spread in a greased 8-inch cake pan; bake at 450 for 15-18 minutes, until golden brown. Cool slightly, and while still warm, cut into wedges, split lengthwise and fill with sliced berries. Top with whipped cream, milk or ice cream.
Strawberry Jam (for chefs and philanthropists; adapted fromCanning for a New Generation)
This jam recipe is perfect for gifts because it makes a LOT: the berries are just brought to a boil and shut off, allowing most of the liquid to gel for a less-concentrated, lighter jam. I like it best because it uses natural pectin, a citrus derivative that works with a calcium solution to ensure cooks may vary the amount and type of sweetner in their jam.
Stir together 4 tablespoons Universal Pectin with 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups sweetener (if using liquid sweetener, skip this step.) Crush 3 pounds washed, hulled strawberries and bring mixture to a boil, along with 4 teaspoons calcium solution and the juice and zest of two lemons. Stir in pectin mixture until dissolved. Return to a boil and remove from heat; ladle into in half-pint jars with 1/4-inch headspace and can in a hot-water bath 5 minutes.