Tuesday, May 6, 2008


STRAWBERRIES are everywhere, at farm stands along the busy roads leading into the metropolis, at farmers markets, in grocery stores, or at pick your own farms.  I'm pressed for time these days, so for me, it's pick and go at local roadside stands.
Strawberries are my absolute favorite berry.  This year, I am determined to put up, as we say here in the South, fresh berries so that I can enjoy remnants of their wonderful taste during the cold winter months.
I told you previously that I was going to try to make some strawberry preserves from Russ Parson's book, HOW TO PICK A PEACH.  Well, I did.  But the flat I bought was twice as many berries as he recommends doing at a time.  His theory is that smaller batches are easier to hit just right.  And I can tell you, he is correct.
I should have known better.  I write recipes, and I know there's a reason for recommended quantities!  Anyway, rather than cook just 2 cups of sweetened berries, I put 4 in the skillet.  And being my first batch of preserves I've made in several decades, without the watchful eye of my doting grandmother, I had a bit of trouble determining if they had cooked long enough.  I mean, I allowed the mixture to dribble from my spatula, and it didn't come off in a sheet as it's supposed to when it's ready.  But I was getting scared that it was cooking too much, because the time was twice as long as Parsons recommends.  The second batch, a bit smaller, thickened beautifully, and I ladled it into the prepared jars thinking this is more like it.  The last batch was not as juicy as the others, and I think it came out perfect.
I did "can" them, putting the jars of preserves in boiling water for 10 minutes, and making sure the top had "popped" and sealed.
The results?  Well, the taste is awesome. Dynamite fresh strawberry taste.  The consistency varies.  My first batch is very runny, but still good when dribbled on toast.  The second was thicker; the third thicker still with a consistency more like regular preserves, although as Parson says, this jam will not be stiff since it has no pectin.
A worthwhile adventure in the kitchen, I think, and I do plan on repeating it before strawberries disappear, for I only have a few jars left!  We usually don't have toast every morning, but lately, well, who can resist?

A Berry is a Berry or NOT?
These strawberries I've been rapping on are great.  But.  But they do not taste like strawberries of old.  They're larger, for the most part.  Most have a good taste, but they are not as sweet or as potent as I remember.  And I thought perhaps it's just because I'm getting old (I did have a birthday this weekend!), until I read an essay on Saveur.com that agreed with my assessment of today's modern crop.
The strawberry has suffered from the same constraints as other veggies and fruits.  They're being bred for transport, not flavor.  Even those bought locally and sold just down the road are the same plant variety as those harvested and sold hundreds of miles away.  The Saveur piece says that in 1920, over 1,300 varieties of strawberries existed.  Today, there are less than 100. 
Year-round strawberries are possible, but you have to sacrifice a bit for taste.  Sure, they're beautiful and red, plump and huge, but most times they just don't have that WOW factor in the taste department.  They're like the tomato - they need to ripen in the sun, in the field, not on a shelf.
In North Carolina, as along the rest of the East Coast, strawberries are native.  John Lawson, who explored the state during the early 1700s, wrote about coming upon a field in NC's mountains where native Indian maidens were frolicking with only strawberry juice covering their skin.  The berries were likely the wild F. vigininiana that grew thick enough to turn horses' hooves so red they looked like they were bleeding, the Saveur piece states.  This wild berry was crossed with one from our West to become the parent of all American strawberries.  
I'd like to encourage local farmers to try different cultivars, to get more of an "heirloom" berry available for those of us who can taste the difference.  Saveur says to look for a new winter  berry, Camarosa  from California which promises better flavor.  

So my plan is to freeze a couple of quarts of strawberries, both sliced and whole.  I've got a couple of recipes I want to check out, and will give you an update next time!

A FAVORITE RECIPE......adapted from The Silver Palate


            Here are two sensuous flavor combinations.  Save the prettiest berries for this beautiful tart. 

One cooked 9-inch pie shell

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

3 Tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 quart (4 cups) whole, fresh strawberries, hulled and large ones halved, rinsed and dried

2 Tablespoons strawberry or red currant jelly

1 teaspoon water

Garnish:  confectioners’ sugar, sifted, sprigs of lemon verbena or mint


  1. In the microwave, or in a double boiler, melt the chocolate and butter together, stirring frequently. When thoroughly melted and mixed, stir in cream and beat with spoon until combined. 
  2. Spread mixture into the cooked tart shell. 
  3. Immediately place berries, bottoms up, starting in the center, in a patterned circle covering the tart. 
  4. Melt jelly and water together in the microwave, stir, then brush the tops of each strawberry with that mixture so that berries will glisten. 
  5. Serve within two hours, or refrigerate for up to six hours, allowing tart to warm to room temp before serving so that chocolate layer can be sliced.  Sprinkle confectioners’ sugar over the top of each slice, and place a green sprig on top. 

YIELD:  8 servings

Thursday, May 1, 2008




Crabs are back!  The Carolina Blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, which literally means beautiful or savory swimmer, spends the winter sleeping in the mucky muck at the bottom of our sounds and bays.
When the water begins to warm, the crabs emerge, and feeling rather randy, want to begin to mate, feed, and if we're lucky, make their way into crab pots and onto our plates!  Busters, chandlers' wives and jimmies are nicknames given crabs when wooing and shedding. When soft shells come in at the first full moon in May,  I'll tell their story.  
Ray Hautsch, of B & J Seafood in New Bern, is one of those seafood vendors that this cook just loves.  "Whatcha got that's fresh?" I ask. Remembering what I like, his  face brightens, he talks about what's coming in and where it's from, then disappears into the back, where you hear him scaling and cleaning and calling out ideas for ways to cook his fresh treasures.
This weekend, he had a big, beautiful rockfish, or striper, on ice that had been caught upriver.  Stripers spend the winters in the ocean, then come into the estuaries and rivers, and this is amazing to me, where they were born, in order to spawn themselves.  The hubby and I were staying for a few nights at his family's beach condo, where we saw another party grilling (hamburgers, at the beach?). When they were done with the grill, Steve rushed down to place our beautiful fillets over the remaining coals.  Not having any fresh herbs on hand, we just used a seasoning salt on it.  What a delightful feast.  The fish was firm but moist, with a delightful mild but definite fish taste.  
But what really delighted me were the live crabs Ray cleaned for us.  Bright blue claws!  Ray introduced me to a totally different way of preparing crabs, one that I did not run into while researching  THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK.  You place cleaned crabs upside down on a baking sheet, put butter in the cavity, and a ton of garlic, then sprinkle loads of freshly cracked pepper over it all. Cover with foil, then place in a 300 degree preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes.  Look at the above "after" photo, and you can imagine the sensuous delight we had "picking" those crabs.  I was glad for the fresh asparagus that we could just pick up, too, for it was a definite "finger food" meal, lasting for hours and many glasses of wine picking through at least 3 crabs each.
Another evening was spent with the flounder Ray had "pocketed" for the lump crabmeat he placed in our ice chest, which also made a super omelette the next morning.
B&J Seafood is located right on HWY 70, on the right near the airport turnoff and past the bridges if you're headed TO the coast.  Tell them I sent you.