The official fruit ambassador of Spring has arrived – sound the trumpet – Strawberries!!!!
The first sign of Spring in South Florida is the juicy, red, ripe strawberries in the market and in home gardens. This season is particularly welcome because we actually had a “real” winter and the warm and mild climate for strawberries feels so very deserving right now. After all, Florida is sometimes nicknamed the Winter Strawberry Capital of the country. We host one of the largest strawberry festivals each year in Plant City, Florida, about three hours north of Miami.
We also have great u-pick farms in Homestead and Redlands, Florida (roughly and hour south of Miami; but still within Miami-Dade County). Anyone who has ever made the trek to the Redlands will undoubtedly want to stop in at the Knauss Berry Farm for fresh produce and some of the biggest, juiciest, and sweetest strawberries in all of south Florida (they also have great milkshakes and a bakery that boast cinnamon buns that will give you a sheer exercise in gluttony). As a child, I can remember my Father taking us to Homestead to pick strawberries. I confess we ate more strawberries in the field right off the stems than we actually placed in our buckets. Thinking back, I think they probably should have weighed us children before going into the fields and weighed us again on the way out to determine how much to charge my Father.
This year, I plan to go no further than my backyard for strawberries.
I planted two strawberry plants at the end of the Summer last year and hoped for a late Fall harvest. That did not happen. I did not expect anything from them by the time Winter arrived. In fact, I really thought that they would die once the temperatures reached the 30s and 40s. However, they did not. The leaves remained healthy and deep green though no flowers developed. Then in January, I found three small white flowers amongst the green leaves. Wow, I thought, I am really going to get strawberries.
I watched those white flowers earnestly until the leaves gave way to small seedy little greenish orbs at the end of the stems. I worried I was watching them too much. After all, I reasoned; if a watched pot never boils, then these orbs would never grow into berries if I kept my vigilant watch. When the temperatures, uncharacteristically, dipped lower at night and stayed there during the day; I gave up hope. The strawberries did not. The orbs grew bigger and bigger and they started taking shape. Form pale green to white to a light blush of pink to red and then to a brilliant red color.
The morning I walked into my garden to pick my first homegrown strawberries… to eat directly off the stem… just as when I was a kid… I was too late. A slug beat me out and it had enjoyed my berries as a midnight meal.
It turns out that slugs love strawberries. So do snails. They both attack the berries at night. After researching a slew of chemical pesticides, I went with the solution of replanting the plants into a planter that I can bring inside at night; removing my strawberries out of the slugs and snails way.
This did not help.
During the daytime, while the strawberries were out in their planter and high above the ground; the ripe berries became a mid-day snack for the blue jays who had built their nest in my neighbor’s orange tree. I watched them outside my kitchen window, fly down, and pluck the ripening strawberries from among the leaves and eat them.
Doesn’t red mean “Danger! Stay away in the animal kingdom”?
Apparently, the blue jays did not get the memo because they routinely came to my backyard as soon as they started seeing the strawberries ripening. So I got more and savvier about moving the planter. In addition, I came up with the idea to buy a fine wire mesh-screen to attach across the top of the planter so that the sunlight can get to the plants while the birds cannot get to the berries. As for bringing the planter in at night, that will continue until the growing season is over.
I have a new respect for strawberry farmers.
As a show of that new found respect, I offer a recipe for the most exquisitely delicious rendition of Strawberry Shortcake. There is nothing wrong with the traditional version of Strawberry Shortcake. It is a classic with the crumbly soft biscuit-like shortcake; sensually sweet macerated fresh strawberries; and fluffy sweet whipped cream. I love it.
But, this one incorporates flavors that pair so well with fresh strawberries – fresh ginger, fresh cracked black pepper, and fresh basil. The flavors are a bit “chefy” (meaning that something is more culinary adventurous and creative than it’s traditional version)… but the method is simple and it will look impressive on your Spring table…. and the T.A.S.T.E is fantastic.
My Recipe: GINGER MACERATED STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE w BASIL AND BLACK PEPPER serves 4
1 pint fresh Florida strawberries
6 Tbsp granulated sugar, separated
¼ tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1 c all-purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cubed
½ c buttermilk, separated into two ¼ cups
1 tsp fresh cracked medium coarse black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh small basil leaves, preferably Boxwood or Thai variety
½ cup heavy whipping cream or non-dairy whipped topping
Macerate strawberries: In a medium bowl, slice strawberries into rounds; sprinkle with 4 T granulated sugar; add finely grated ginger; and stir gently until sugar is dissolved and strawberries start to release some of their juices
Cover and refrigerate the ginger macerated strawberries
Make shortcakes: Preheat oven to 450 degrees
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and kosher salt in a medium bowl; add cubed butter and cut butter into flour mixture using two forks, a fork, or a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly like coarse sand
Add ¼ c buttermilk to flour mixture; stir gently until a soft dough forms; if dough is still crumbly; gradually add remaining buttermilk until soft, not wet, dough forms
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently until dough is smooth; about 5 – 6 turns; shape into a square; with a floured rolling pin, roll dough to a ½ ” thickness trying to maintain the square shape
Cut dough into four equal squares and sprinkle each square liberally with granulated sugar and black pepper
Bake shortcakes until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes; remove from oven and cool on a wire rack
With a wire whisk, whip cream to soft peaks, add 1 tsp of powdered sugar for a sweeter whipped cream
Assemble Strawberry Shortcakes no more than 30 minutes before serving
Using a serrated knife, slice the cooled shortcakes in half horizontally; place bottom of shortcakes on plate; reserve 8 slices of ginger macerated strawberries for garnish; top each bottom shortcake half with ¼ of the ginger macerated strawberries, drizzling each with 1 – 2 Tbsp of the syrup formed in the bottom of the bowl; scatter a few of the small basil leaves on top of the strawberries; and add a healthy dollop of whipped cream
Add top half of shortcake and garnish each with a smaller dollop of whipped cream, two of the reserved strawberry slices; and another scatter of small basil leaves
Alternately, you can bake the shortcake in a small 6” round cake pan, cut horizontally in half, and assemble as instructed above to make one cake. I find those a little bit messy to serve as the filling rushes out one side during cutting and the presentation is ruined.
Whatever way you choose to assemble the Strawberry Shortcake, just remember to use fresh Florida strawberries. No. The state’s agricultural board to not paying me for promotion, I just think that our strawberries taste so good.
always in good T.A.S.T.E – cause you gottatastethis!