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A&E >  Food

Seasonal Kitchen: strawberries

Sylvia Fountaine

Tender-skinned and full-flavored, strawberries are among the first fruits to ripen during the Inland Northwest growing season.

And they’re very different from grocery-store strawberries, which most likely were bred for size, looks and long truck rides from California. Sure, they’re pretty, with their glossy red skin and perfect shape, but all too often they lack depth of flavor.

When you experience a sweet, locally grown strawberry, picked the very same day you plop it in your mouth, you’ll come to understand the difference. Everything you thought about strawberries will change. At least that’s how it was for me.

When I was young, my Finnish mother would often tell me that the strawberries from the grocery store were not “real” strawberries. She would say this because they were not red all the way through, had no scent and very little flavor. They looked red enough to me and seemed to taste fine. It wasn’t until I was older and tasted a strawberry on my cousin’s organic strawberry farm in Finland that I finally understood. Their flavor was absolutely startling. Their scent filled the whole house.

Ninety percent of the strawberries produced in the States are grown in California. Now, I’m not saying these are bad, I’m just merely pointing out the obvious: A strawberry needs to be pretty tough to survive that kind of travel. Tough is the opposite of how you want a strawberry to be. If you haven’t tried local strawberries – juicy, fragile and intensely flavorful – now is the time.

Find them at Inland Northwest farmers markets from late May though early July. Or, even better, make an experience out of it by picking your own. Siemers in Green Bluff and Carver Farms near Newman Lake will let you bring the whole family and pick your own strawberries.

Strawberries are also easy to grow at home. An herbaceous perennial and member of the rose family, strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside. And, on average, there are 200 seeds on each berry. They come back year after year, some plants producing for several years.

When selecting strawberries for planting, understand there are three basic types.

June-bearing strawberries produce their main crop in June or July, then spread lots of runners from which new plants are started. Some of the best tasting ones are Hoods, Shuksan and Rainiers.

Day-neutrals produce berries throughout the whole growing season except the hottest part of summer, but offer few runners. Try Tristar, Tribute, Selva, Tillicum or Seascapes.

Ever-bearing strawberries produce two crops of berries – in early summer and then in fall – as well as very few runners. Ones to try are Quinault, Ozark Beauty and Fort Laramie.

In the kitchen, strawberries are pure joy. Not much needs to be done to improve upon them when you have a good batch. Simply wash them and enjoy, or serve them over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Strawberry season is relatively short, so make the most of them by serving them in a variety of ways. For dessert, they’re lovely baked in pies, cobblers and crisps, and are perfect paired with rhubarb.

Mika Maloney, owner of Batch Bakeshop in Spokane, uses seasonal strawberries in her Strawberry Crunch Cake.

“This upside-down cake is based on a family recipe my aunt Billie Jean makes every Thanksgiving and Christmas with cranberries as the fruit,” she said. “I bake this at the bakeshop all year long, swapping out different seasonal fruits and spices. It’s a rich, buttery cake but not too sweet. Strawberries and coriander are one of my favorite variations of this recipe; serve it with a little whipped cream or creme fraiche for a simple dessert. Or, top it with yogurt for an indulgent breakfast. It keeps quite well, so it’s a great one to make a day ahead.”

Preserve strawberries’ incredible flavor all year round by making jam or pickling them. And don’t forget to let them find their way into your savory dishes, too. Strawberries can be grilled, roasted or even cooked down into a savory sauce with aromatics, becoming a flavorful accompaniment to grilled meats. Swap them out for tomatoes in your next batch of salsa, and savor their bright flavor over grilled chicken or fish. Or, try making a quick strawberry bruschetta with whipped goat cheese, basil ribbons and reduced balsamic vinegar.

And, of course, make a strawberry salad. Ever so popular these days, and for good reason, not only are they delicious and beautiful, they are loaded with vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants. Research suggests that eating just eight strawberries a day can improve heart health, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of cancers and even improve cognitive functioning. Sign me up!

Strawberry Crunch Cake

From Mika Maloney of Batch Bakeshop in Spokane

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon coriander

6 ounces butter, melted

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1 to 2 cups sliced strawberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, 1 cup sugar, salt, baking powder and coriander in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using whisk attachment on low speed, add butter slowly, while whisking. Add the eggs.

Increase the speed and whisk well for a couple of minutes, letting the cake batter get light and fluffy. While that’s whisking, prepare a 9-inch round cake pan, greasing well and lining with parchment paper.

In the bottom of prepared pan, add remaining sugar, shaking to spread it evenly across the pan. Top with sliced strawberries (see note).

Pour the cake batter onto the fruit and sugar, and use a spatula to spread it out evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, until it’s golden on top and a knife or cake tester comes out clean. Err on the side of over-done.

Let cool in the pan 10 minutes, then use a small off-set spatula to go around the edge of the cake before inverting it on a sheet pan. It will still be warm, but you want to get it out before all that jammy fruit cools and gets stuck to the bottom of your cake pan.

You can serve this either fruit side up, or use another pan to flip it back over and serve it cake side up. It’s delicious either way.

Note: Maloney uses enough fruit to completely cover the sugar, creating a jammy consistency. If you want a bit tidier cake, use less fruit. Also, depending on how sweet, tart or juicy your berries are you might want to toss them in a bit of sugar or lemon juice before you dump them in the cake pan. If they’re perfectly sweet and juicy, the 1/2 cup sugar you’ve already put in will be perfect.

Strawberry Arugula and Black Rice Salad

For the dressing

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper, more to taste

For the salad

4 cups cooked black rice (or wild rice or quinoa)

1 pound strawberries, stemmed and quartered

4 scallions-sliced thin at a diagonal

1/4 cup basil ribbons

1/2 cup bunch Italian parsley chopped

2-3 ounces arugula (two big handfuls)

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese

Make the dressing: Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar, if necessary.

Make the salad: Place salad ingredients through parsley in a large bowl. Add dressing. Right before serving, toss in the arugula and top with crumbed goat cheese.

Grilled Balsamic Rosemary Pork Loin with Savory Strawberry Sauce

1 pound pork loin

For the marinade

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1-2 teaspoons fresh rosemary

3 garlic cloves

For the sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small shallot, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

2 cups strawberries, small diced

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons sugar

Generous pinch salt and pepper

Squeeze lemon juice, about 1 teaspoon

For the garnish (optional)

1 cup diced strawberries

1 teaspoon balsamic reduction or glaze

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Place loin in a large zip-top bag or shallow baking dish.

Blend marinade ingredients together in a blender, then add to bag or shallow baking dish, coating all sides. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

In a small pot, heat oil over medium low heat, then add shallot. Stir and sauté until golden, about 2-3 minutes. Add strawberries, wine, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer on medium-low heat until wine has reduced and strawberries have thickened, about 10 minutes. It should look like a loose jam. Add a squeeze of lemon. Set aside.

Pre-heat grill on high heat.

Remove loin from marinade and pour extra marinade into a small pot. Boil for 1 minute, or until it has darkened. You will use this cooked marinade to baste the loin while it’s on the grill.

Once the grill is hot, scrape it clean.

Turn to medium-high and place pork loin directly on the grill, and cook for 12 minutes total, turning and basting every 3 minutes. Cover in-between turns. Check temperature. Continue cooking on grill, lowering heat if necessary. Or, finish it in the oven, just until loin reaches 140 degrees at thickest point.

Let rest 5-10 minutes.

When ready to serve, slice loin into ¾ inch slices, then plate, topping with sauce (or place pork over the sauce).

Garnish with diced strawberries, rosemary sprigs and reduced balsamic vinegar.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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