Happy Mother's Day, and happy strawberry season! While fresh-picked California strawberries have been brightening up the farmers' market for a while, those first fruits are never the sweetest ones. It's different with vegetables; the first pick of spring's tender young fava beans, English peas, asparagus, and new potatoes may well be the best.
But fruit needs a little time to bask in the newly warm sunshine and longer days, and right now, strawberries have finally come into their own, ripe and red and lovely, ready to perfume the table and delight moms everywhere. They are versatile and delicious every way, although you can't beat breakfast in bed highlighted with a simple bowl of strawberries and cream.
First, though, you need to pick your berries right. If your mom taught you lots of great stuff but not this, well, here's what you need to know. Having harvested strawberries every day for months during my time at the UCSC's Farm and Garden program, I learned a few protocols beyond the obvious one of red=ripe. There are gradations of red, for starters. Orange-red, pinky red: these aren't the reds you are looking for. A red somewhere between stop-sign and wine: that's what you want.
Then, no white shoulders. Look around the stem cap; is the berry red all the way up to the top, or is there a tell-tale patch of greenish-white up there? Berries ripen tip first, so they're not fully sweet and ripe until the very top is red, too. The second test is scent; a box of truly ripe berries will pamper your Mom with its sweet, summery perfume. Finally, a truly ripe berry will be red through and through; a white, chalky-looking core means the berry was picked too soon.
Finally, the berries shouldn't have soft, shriveled spots or squishy tips; a mushy spot in the morning is a rotten spot by afternoon. Especially in organic berries, a few peck-holes are OK; we called jabbed specimens "bird-certified ripe."
Different types of strawberry have different balances of sweetness, tartness, and flavor. Our coastal climate calls for berries that can handle cool nights and foggy days. Seascape, Chandler, and Quinalt are all delicious berries that do well here, in both farms and backyard gardens, but to my taste, Albion, a cultivar introduced by UC Davis in 2004, is the champ.
For making this excellent strawberry salsa, I picked up a great flat of organic berries from Watsonville's Rodriguez Ranch at the Diablo Valley Farmers' Market. Right now, they've got sensational Albion berries as well as great Seascapes. I'm also fond of the organic berries grown by Swanton Berry Farm, Tomatero Farm, and Yerena Farms. It's worth it to seek out organic berries; conventional strawberry farms are big pesticide consumers, as the recent debate over the use of methyl iodide revealed.
Once you've got your berries, remember that heat and moisture are the enemies of a fresh strawberry. While nothing's better than a freshly picked, sun-warmed berry, if you want to keep your berries for a few days, you need to keep them cool. For best results, lay your berries out in a single layer on a paper towel inside a glass or plastic box. Place another paper towel on top and cover. Held like this, berries should last up to 3 or 4 days. Don't rinse or hull your berries until just before you want to eat or use them.
So, you're well stocked with beautiful berries for Mom. Strawberries and cream, a surefire hit. But what if you want to dress up those berries a little, show Mom you've learned a thing or two since your macaroni-necklace days? Meyer Lemon Ricotta Pancakes or Cottage Cheese Pancakes would go perfectly with a scatter of cut-up fresh berries. You could impress Mom with a pink-and-green souffle or this can't-miss breakfast strata, strawberries on the side. Or you can whip up a plate of her very favorite breakfast just the way she likes it, and serve these lovely muffins in a basket alongside. The real appeal? Baking, they'll make the kitchen smell like heaven in springtime.
The secret ingredient in these early summer morning berries is lavender sugar, made from sugar scented with a handful of lavender blossoms. It's easy to make: just let a handful of fresh, unsprayed lavender blossoms dry out for a few days, then mix them into a jar or canister of sugar (the pale gold, organic kind, by my preference). Close tightly and let the lavender perfume the sugar for a few days before using. You can use a similar technique to make vanilla sugar. Plunging a few split whole vanilla beans into a canister of sugar; after a few days, the sugar will have a subtle but delicious whiff of vanilla (leave the beans in the sugar; the flavor will deepen with time). Or, for a quickie version, split a bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife. Rub the vanilla seeds into 2 cups of sugar; store in a tightly closed container to preserve the flavor.
Strawberry Lavender Muffins
If you don't have lavender sugar available, you can substitute vanilla or citrus-flavored sugar in these muffins. For citrus sugar, finely grate the peel of 2 lemons or limes or 1 orange into 2 cups sugar. Mix peel thoroughly into the sugar and store in a tightly closed container.
Yield: 12 muffins
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 18-20 minutes
Total Time: 28-30 minutes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or whole-wheat pastry flour, or a combination of the two
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup lavender sugar (see note)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk
5 tbsp butter, melted
1 cup chopped strawberries, about 10-12 berries
2 tsp lavender sugar
Preheat oven to 400F. Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin pan or line with paper liners.
In a large bowl, sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder, soda and salt together. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and milk together. Pour egg mixture into dry ingredients and mix quickly but gently together. Pour in melted butter and stir a few more strokes. stir in strawberries.
Spoon batter (it will be wetter than most typical muffin batters) into muffin cups. Bake 18-20 minutes, until a tester comes out clean and muffins are golden brown. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove muffins from cups. Serve warm.