Superfood status aside, there is nothing more seductive than the sweet and spicy scent of the first gold-spangled ruby-red strawberries of the season. The uninitiated may wonder what on earth I’m talking about, since the fruit section of most grocery stores is as aroma-free as the canned goods section. But every Saturday in June, I watch a stream of savvy shoppers make a beeline to certain local farm stands where perfume still pervades the air.
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The strawberries at a farmers market are generally not the largest, nor the longest-lasting, nor the most perfectly shaped. But there is a reason customers are standing six-deep, waiting their turn: When you bite into the soft flesh, juices and flavors ricochet around your mouth and your brain until you are in a delirium of pleasure. “This,” I hear people say again and again, “is what strawberries used to taste like!”
Indeed, this is how they tasted, before they were bred for color, size and shelf-life, before synthetic chemical fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to industrial belief, there are simple ways to control pests in the strawberry patch, the most time-tested being organic straw mulch (hence the straw in strawberries), which obviates the need for a host of chemicals. Straw keeps the berries off the moist ground (no need for fungicides), prevents weed seeds from germinating (no need for herbicides), and adds nutrients to the soil as the straw decomposes (no need for chemical fertilizers) — all the while enhancing the diversity of soil microorganisms that keep the farm ecosystem on an even keel.
Even in our hot and humid Illinois summers, delicious strawberry varieties such as Jewel, Honey-oye, and Earliglo do very well. But my new favorite is Mara des Bois. It is a small, somewhat elongated berry, with an intoxicating fragrance, unusual red-orange color, and deep, complex and varied flavors. In fact, different berries, even from the same plant, can have remarkably different flavors. This may be because it is a combination of four heirloom varieties that the French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet crossed to get the Mara des Bois. Each variety contributes a layer of flavor and in some berries, one or another flavor predominates, with some sweeter, some more citrusy, some more perfumey.
I confirmed my suspicion of the berry-to-berry variations when I brought over a big bowl of them as a treat for friends, and each one brought a different accolade, from “tangerine!” to “Kool-Aid!” to “strawberry ice cream!” And so another and another disappeared until the bowl was empty.
And these bright bursts of flavor contain potent packages of nutrition. An average strawberry has only 4 calories, but packed in those few calories are 11% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. This means that eight to 10 strawberries give you more vitamin C than an orange. In addition, strawberries are high in fiber and antioxidants, and a good source of potassium and manganese.
While nothing says “welcome to summer” like strawberry shortcake, there are many other ways to use strawberries — if you can manage to get them home without eating them all on the way. This easy salad combines the best of the rich flavors of early summer — spicy arugula with sweet/tart strawberries.
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 4 cups torn arugula leaves
- 2 cups sliced strawberries
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved and crumbled into small pieces (½ cup)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large salad bowl; let cool for 5 minutes.
- Add arugula, strawberries, Parmesan, pepper and salt. Sprinkle vinegar and oil over the salad; toss gently and serve at once.
Main photo: The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman