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Strawberries from the Farmer's Market (c)2012

On a warm and sunny Saturday morning I walked through the crowded Boulder Farmer’s Market, past the artisan bread stand with the cute Italian guys, past the goat cheese maker’s tent, past mounds of vegetables piled high. As it should be, I caught whiff of the alluring fragrance before I saw them: strawberries! Members of the rose family, ripe strawberries have a sweet, floral aroma that cannot be ignored. These tiny, ruby red gems look puny next to mass-produced strawberries from the grocery store, but their flavor and juiciness is unbeatable. In The River Cottage Cookbook, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes:

The best strawberries you will taste are the ones you pick and eat straight from the plant on a warm day, when they are fully ripe and the flavor-giving molecules are still buzzing with the heat of the sun.

Once you’ve tasted a freshly picked strawberry from the garden, farmer’s market, or a vendor on the side of the road, you’ll never go back to the flavorless, out-of-season strawberries available at the grocery store year-round. Wild strawberries found rambling along shady areas of deciduous forrest, are a real treat. These are the tiniest of all, but so powerfully scented that Hugh suggests adding one or two to a dessert is enough to make an impact.

There are many varieties of cultivated strawberries, and if you’ve got a garden it’s fun to test them out and find a favorite. Purchase small strawberry plants to plant in a garden bed or hanging container during early spring or early autumn. The plants take a year to get settled before producing an abundant crop of berries. Strawberries belong to the rose family, and according to The Produce Bible, their botanic name Fragaria, means “fragrance.” Peak strawberry season begins in May and continues through the summer. When buying strawberries at the market, look for plump berries with vibrant color. Avoid those with greenish-white “shoulders” under the leaves, or berries with soft spots, bruising, or mold. Freshly picked strawberries from the garden or farmer’s market should be eaten in the same day, as they deteriorate at a much faster pace than the supermarket strawberries. Once picked, strawberries will not continue to ripen. It’s best if the strawberries never have to see the inside of the fridge, a harsh, dry environment that is not kind to their delicate flesh. Supermarket berries will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. I always take them out of their plastic container and store them in a bowl, wrapped in a paper towel to absorb mold-causing moisture while at the same time protecting the tender berries from the drying cold. I thought this tip from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook to be quite helpful in getting the most flavor from supermarket strawberries:

Most local strawberries picked for the supermarket are generally harvested a few days off full ripeness, and chilled immediately for transport. They will be a little more tart than fully ripe specimens but may be good nonetheless. Mold spreads fast in fruit piled up in a basket, so if you want to improve their flavor at home, spread them out on a tray and place them on a sunny windowsill- or outside on a really fine day. Direct sunlight will do more for them than a warm room, and even just a few hours of it can make a considerable difference.

Though some cooks may recommend freezing an excess of whole strawberries for later use, I believe their flavor diminishes, and it’s best to go ahead and make the jam, ice cream, or sauce, then freeze it for a superior texture and flavor. To prepare fresh strawberries for eating, give them only the very lightest rinse at the last moment, then remove their leafy tops with a small knife or tool called a strawberry huller. Strawberries absorb water, which dilutes their flavor, so it’s important to minimize rinsing.

A perfectly ripe and juicy strawberry is such a pleasure to eat, little else is needed to adorn it. This week at la Domestique, we’ve got simple recipes that let the beautiful aroma and taste of the strawberry be the star. Check back here for 10 Ways Tuesday and find creative recipes to celebrate the strawberry during spring and summer. Don’t let the season pass you by without trying at least one strawberry jam, ice cream, or tart.

Do you grow strawberries in your garden? Share your favorite varieties and strawberry memories in the comments section. Click Here.