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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strawberries Signal the Start of Summer

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

It's the end of spring, and in the part of the U.S. where I live, fresh strawberries will soon be ripe for picking. Strawberries are grown worldwide, both indoors and outdoors, in pots and in the ground. In some parts of the U.S., strawberry festivals are held to celebrate the harvesting of the first fruit to ripen each year.

Strawberries have been cultivated and enjoyed for centuries. There are approximately 20 varieties of strawberries, the most common being the Garden Strawberry. Strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside. Fresh, frozen, preserved or prepared in food and beverages, strawberries' sweet/tart properties and vibrant color make them a popular food choice with young and old alike.

Strawberry plants are sturdy and produce small white, yellow-centered flowers which develop into the tasty fruit we enjoy so many ways. Strawberries ripen quickly and should be harvested when fully red or when only a quarter of the fruit's surface is still white or light pink. The fruit itself is fragile and is harvested and packaged by hand -- usually in the fields where grown.

Approximately one fourth of the world's strawberries are grown in the United States. That translates to a $1 billion industry. Strawberry breads, strawberry ice cream, strawberry shortcake, strawberry preserves, strawberry lemonade, strawberry milkshakes, strawberry salads, and dried strawberries. This versatile fruit is low in calories (approximately 45 calories per cup) and is loaded with vitamin C.

Strawberry plants are perennials, but generate fruit for only a few years. New plants need to be planted in a strawberry patch every year or two to replace old plants that no longer produce. The plants like full sun and well-drained soil.

I planted a small strawberry patch when my children were young. We never gathered a huge berry harvest (a resourceful rabbit enjoyed munching them as much as we did), but the kids had fun checking for ripe berries each morning. One summer we made strawberry preserves. The recipe was easy (and kid-friendly) and the results tasted wonderful on bread.

I guess you could say strawberries played an important role in my life. Strawberry ice cream was responsible for bringing my parents together in the mid-20th century. They were college students and rode a commuter bus to classes during the summer. The bus wasn't air conditioned, and the driver stopped at a market each day so riders could get something cool to eat or drink. One day Mom and Dad shared a seat. Dad entered the market when the bus stopped and returned with two strawberry ice cream cones. Mom accepted the ice cream cone offered to her, they began talking, and the rest is history.

My favorite way to serve strawberries is to cap and slice them, sprinkle with a bit of sugar to draw out the juice, and top with a dollop of whipped cream. Yum!

I've used strawberries in dozens of recipes through the years, but the dessert that always gets compliments and requests for second helpings is the easiest to assemble. Here's the recipe:

Easy Strawberry Dessert

1 angel food cake
1 quart ripe strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1 container Cool Whip

Tear the angel food cake into small chunks. Place in a large, shallow bowl or plastic container. Cap and slice the strawberries into another bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over the berries. Gently toss the berries until the sugar dissolves and juice begins to form. Spread the berry mixture over the cake pieces. Spread Cool Whip over the berries. Cover and chill for several hours before serving.

Enjoy, and welcome the start of the summer produce season!

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