Remember 2008? The strawberry fields suffered from winter kill, and so did our strawberry shortcakes.
The next year was the year of relentless rains that decimated the strawberry crop and made Mainers start gathering materials for building an ark. They drowned their sorrows in blue margaritas since there was no fruit for strawberry ones.
As for 2010, the combination of a warm, early spring combined with a late frost got the strawberry plants as confused as a vegan in a steak house.
Sure, 2011 was kind of normal, but then last year the unusual weather made everything happen way too early, and by Independence Day — usually the grand finale of strawberry season — the whole crop was kaput. That meant no strawberry pie for Fourth of July picnics.
This year, says David Handley, a small-fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Monmouth, Maine is “actually having the closest thing to a normal year we’ve had in a while as far as plant development is concerned.”
“The size looks good, the quantity looks very good, and the pest problems were very few this year,” he said. “So I’m thinking we’re looking at a very good crop year.”
Handley said Maine is better off than other northeastern states this year, which have had twice as much rain and are trying to keep their fruit from rotting before it can be harvested.
Strawberry growers in southern Maine agree with Handley that, so far, this is looking to be a banner year.
“It’s looking really good at this point,” said Bill Bamford of Maxwell’s Strawberry Farm in Cape Elizabeth. “That’s all subject to change because we don’t know what the weather is going to do.”
Handley said growers in the Augusta area were talking about opening their pick-your-own fields by this weekend, which is a normal start for central Maine.
Earl Bunting of Doles Orchard in Limington, which has 3 1/2 acres of strawberries, said last week he was hoping to open for picking sometime between June 15 and 20, which is normal for the business. He said he’d like to have more sun for ripening, but “you take what you can get.”
Bill Spiller of Spiller Farm in Wells had already opened his pick-your-own operation last week, saying that it’s “been a good year. The berries are looking excellent.”
At Maxwell’s they won’t start picking until near the end of the month, which is normal for being right on the coast.
“The people inland that don’t get the afternoon sea breezes, they’ll start before we do,” Bamford noted, “but they don’t have the ocean to look at while they’re picking, either.”
WHEN YOU BRING your strawberries home, after you’ve had your fill of strawberry pie, and strawberries on your morning cereal and in your afternoon smoothies, try making these strawberry classics from local restaurants. Some of them come with a twist.
The Ramorita from Zapoteca may not look like the typical bright red, syrupy-sweet strawberry margarita you’d have on spring break, but it is in fact a traditional, classic margarita:
3 to 4 strawberry slices (muddled)
11/2 ounces silver tequila
3/4 ounce Patron Citronge
1/2 ounce agave nectar
11/2 ounces fresh squeezed lime juice
Serve shaken, straight up. Garnish with three jalapeno slices or more strawberries.
WHAT COULD BE more classic than strawberry shortcake? Here, Shanna O’Hea, chef/co-owner of Academe at the Kennebunk Inn, serves a traditional strawberry shortcake alongside a rhubarb ginger shortcake so you get two tastes of the season at once. With this duo of shortcakes, she says, your guests can enjoy both flavors on their own or mix them to enjoy the strawberry and rhubarb together.
STRAWBERRY AND RHUBARB SHORTCAKE WITH WHIPPED CREAM
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) butter, cold and cubed
1 egg yolk
8 ounces heavy cream
1 quart strawberries, washed, stemmed and quartered
1 lime, zest and juice
1 pound rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
1 tablespoon grenadine
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift together flour and baking powder in a large bowl.
Add sugar and salt and cubed butter.
Working with your hands, crumble the cold butter into flour until it resembles small peas.
Mix heavy cream and eggs together and add all at once to flour mixture and mix until incorporated.
Place dough on floured work station and knead only 10 times; stop no matter how dough looks.
Roll dough out on floured surface until 1/2-inch thick.
Cut out dough with ring molds and place on slipmat, egg wash tops and bake in 375-degree oven for 7 to 12 minutes or until golden and cooked through.
Add 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water to sauce pan and bring to boil until sugar dissolves to create simple syrup.
Combine 1/4 cup of the strawberries, lime juice and zest and 1/4 cup simple syrup in a blender. Puree until smooth, then strain through fine chinois to remove seeds. Reserve in a squeeze bottle.
Place rhubarb in a shallow pan with remainder of simple syrup, lemon juice, grenadine and fresh grated ginger. Over medium-high heat, slowly poach the rhubarb, 10 to 12 minutes or until rhubarb is cooked through and soft to touch. Chill rhubarb and reserve.
Whip cream in food processor on high speed with whisk attachment until soft peaks form (3 to 4 minutes). Add sugar and vanilla.
Place biscuits in a 350-degree oven for 2 minutes to re-warm. Plate a scoop of strawberries, garnish with berry puree, top with fresh whipped cream and finish with a warmed biscuit. Plate a scoop of rhubarb, garnish with rhubarb poaching liquid, top with fresh whipped cream and finish with a warmed biscuit. Serve shortcakes side by side.
STRAWBERRY CAKE WITH LEMON WHIPPED CREAM
From the Black Birch, Kittery
1/2 cup butter, preferably Casco Bay Creamery (or a high butterfat-content butter)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
11/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
11/2 cups diced strawberries, floured
2/3 cup whole milk
Pinch of salt
Beat room-temperature butter until fluffy. Add sugar and continue mixing until combined. Add egg yolks one at a time until incorporated well. Add vanilla. Sift flour with baking powder and add to mixer with milk and salt. Mix to combine. Transfer to bowl.
Whisk egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into batter in thirds.
Mix in floured berries.
Butter and flour a 9- by 9-inch pan. Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.
1 cup heavy cream
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon of sugar
Whip until peaks form.
Top cake with macerated berries (1 tablespoon of sugar added to ½ to ¾ cup chopped strawberries) and lemon whipped cream.
STRAWBERRIES & CREAM
From Ilma Lopez, pastry chef at Grace
Servings: Six to eight
2 cups fresh Maine strawberries, cut in quarters
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked (no stems)
1 cup fresh Maine strawberries, left whole, cleaned and stemmed
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
4 tablespoons white sugar
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
FOR THE CREAM:
3 cups heavy cream
1 whole lime, zested on microplane or fine grater
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
FOR THE OAT CRUMBLE:
1 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup Maine honey
Pickle the strawberries first by warming the vinegar over medium heat in a pot and whisking in the sugar and salt until they dissolve. Then add in the vanilla and pour into a container with the cleaned strawberries. Let cool to room temperature (about 1½ to 2 hours). This can be done one day ahead of time.
Next, place your oats and brown sugar in a bowl and toss with the Maine honey, coating evenly. Place parchment paper on a baking sheet and spray with pan spray, and then spread the coated oats on the parchment paper.
Place in a 350-degree oven and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool, then break apart into pieces for serving.
Take the 3 cups of the heavy cream and put into a mixer with the powdered sugar. Use the whip attachment and turn on high, whipping down the sides, and whip until set. Add in the zest from the one lime.
Mix the pickled strawberries with the fresh quartered strawberries. Put in the picked thyme leaves and a little fresh ground black pepper (1/8 teaspoon).
Place the cream in the bottom of your servings cups, dividing evenly.
Then divide the oat crunch and place on top of the cream. To finish, place the Maine strawberry “salad” on top.
Serve and enjoy with a nice, crisp rose wine.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at firstname.lastname@example.org