June 16, 2010

Soup to Nuts: The early bird
gets the berries

Be warned: Strawberry season is about two weeks ahead of schedule, so if you’ve a jones’n for a shortcake or other berry-based treat, think fast.

Strawberry lovers, David Handley has a message for you: “Don’t wait.”

click image to enlarge

Local Strawberry Shortcake, created by pastry chef Bill Leavy, is a popular dessert at Back Bay Grill in Portland when the fruit is in season.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Dean’s Sweets’ chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Courtesy photo

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Some berry picks from local chefs

Fresh Maine strawberries have already started appearing on restaurant menus in Portland. They’re being blended with ice cream and dipped in luscious chocolate. Here’s a look at some of the ways the city’s chefs and other food purveyors are using the berries:

• At Five Fifty-Five, 555 Congress St., chef  Steve Corry has just added a salad to the menu called “chocolate, strawberries and champagne.” The new dish contains baby arugula, local strawberries, chocolate croutons, house-crafted ricotta cheese and champagne vinaigrette. Look for a new dessert as well: black pepper shortcake, lemon-mascarpone cream and balsamic-soaked local strawberries.

The restaurant also has a “strawberry gin fizz” drink special featuring gin infused with strawberries from Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, sweetened syrup and fresh-squeezed lemon juice topped with soda water.

• At Maria’s Restaurant, 337 Cumberland Ave., chef Tony Napolitano was inspired by his grandmother Lina’s recipes to make a semifreddo (semifrozen) dessert called Tortoni Lina. The fresh cherries in his grandmother’s version have been replaced with fresh local strawberries. House-made pine nut praline is mixed in with the partially frozen, nougatty tortoni. Napolitano says his daughters are hooked on the dessert.

Maria’s is also serving fresh strawberries as an appetizer with slivers of  Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.

Sonny’s, 83 Exchange St., has been running a salad special that contains all local foods, including strawberries. It includes arugula from Freedom Farm, strawberries from Maxwell’s, goats’ milk queso blanco from Sunset Acres and a rhubarb and tomato vinaigrette made with rhubarb from Jordan’s Farm and tomatoes from Olivia’s Garden.

• At Ribollita, 41 Middle St., look for chef Kevin Quiet’s dessert of local strawberries with a balsamic zabaglione and crumbled biscotti.

• There’s nothing like a strawberry milkshake in summertime. Whole Foods Market, 2 Somerset St., will be offering a local strawberry shake special this week in its cafe.

• Watch for classic chocolate-dipped strawberries at Dean’s Sweets, 82 Middle St. Owner Dean Bingham hand-picks the berries daily to ensure freshness, then hand-dips them in fine, 70 percent cacao, bittersweet Belgian chocolate.

SWEET SUMMER SIPPER

This simple recipe for Strawberry-Mint Aid comes from chef Joe Kenney of the French Press Eatery at 855 Main St. in Westbrook:

INGREDIENTS
1 quart strawberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Put ingredients in a pot and simmer until strawberries are totally broken down. Puree and strain.

Mix by the glass, or pitcher for a group. For a 16-ounce glass, muddle 2 ounces of strawberry puree, 2 mint leaves and a little sugar. Add 9 ounces of warm water and mix. Fill the remaining space in the glass with ice, preferably crushed ice. If you make it ahead, don’t add the ice until just before serving.

Add your favorite alcohol, or drink it plain.

 

If you’ve been dreaming of piling some biscuits or pound cake high with succulent red berries topped with mounds of fresh whipped cream, now’s the time to start thinking about where you’re going to get them.

Whether you pluck them yourself in a sunny field, pick them up from your favorite farm stand or let a local chef do all the work for you, strawberries won’t be around forever.

Thanks to the wacky weather, the season is about two weeks early this year. And if it turns hot and dry, berries will ripen off quickly, and the season could be wrapping up in southern Maine even before the Fourth of July, said Handley, a vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“We’re going to be in full swing here way ahead of schedule,” Handley said. “In Maine, July Fourth is your strawberry weekend, and you go out there and have a good time. Some growers are already wringing their hands that they’re not going to have a whole lot left come July 4. So the message is, don’t wait, get out there now.”

Of course, just how early the strawberry harvest is and how soon it will wrap up depends largely upon the weather and the location of the farm.

Bill Spiller began picking berries for his store at Spiller Farm in Wells on May 25, his earliest harvest ever. His pick-your-own operation opened a little later. He doesn’t expect to have anything left by Independence Day.

“We’ve been very early, and I think that it will be ending early,” he said.

Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth had not yet opened its pick-your-own operation as of last weekend, but still expects to open five to seven days earlier than average.

The earliest the coastal farm has ever opened is June 17, but Bill Bamford said he didn’t think Maxwell’s would break that  record this year. Opening day, he said, is always “a moving target,” thanks to the weather.

The growing season has, so far, been “crazy,” Bamford said, laughing. “Anything but normal. We don’t know what normal is anymore around here.”

Strawberries are grown commercially on about 500 to 1,000 acres in Maine. Farmers have seen the demand for fresh Maine strawberries grow along with consumers’ cravings for locally grown foods. But fewer people are picking berries themselves – instead, they prefer to let someone else do the harvesting.

“Strawberries have always been popular,” Spiller said. “I don’t know that we have the turnout for them that we used to because people used to come and pick a lot for  jamming and freezing and stuff. And now there’s quite a bit of that, but there’s more people coming just to get  some for fresh berries. They don’t pick the volumes that they used to years ago.”

Consumers also want strawberries more than just a few weeks a year, so Maine farmers are using row covers and new varieties of berries that fruit in late summer and fall to stretch the season on both ends.

No matter how you get them – or when you get them – the strawberry season in Maine is short and sweet (or tart, if you like your berries with a little kick), so enjoy them while you can.

“We have strawberry shortcake just about every night they’re in season,” Spiller said. “(My wife) makes the best biscuits, and it’s fantastic.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

 

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