After four hours of clambering up slippery granite and crumbly talus slopes, my hiking partner and I had made it to the top of a 12,000 foot peak overlooking one of Yosemite's many high-Sierra lakes. The view would have been reward enough, but as I looked on in amazement my friend pulled two crystal goblets and a bottle of Champagne from his pack. Next, he removed a plastic carton containing eight fresh strawberries.
While I held the berry-filled crystal, he uncorked the bottle with a resounding "pop" that echoed across the canyon below. As Champagne bubbled and frothed around the berries, we toasted the sunset. Naturally, I thought that my life as a strawberry lover was complete.
But that was many (many!) summers ago. Three years later I had moved to Oregon, and THAT was when I discovered what strawberry life in the fast lane is all about. Oregonians take their strawberries seriously. VERY seriously. For good reason: They're WON-derful. So wonderful that dedicated souls disdain all imports, waiting not-so-patiently for the real thing to ripen on local bushes. Then, trusty cartons in tow, they tromp out to their favorite strawberry patch or vendor and pick a peck of strawberry heaven.
In an established strawberry field, it's 30 to 40 days from bloom to berry. This year, that process began earlier than usual. About three weeks earlier, thanks to an unusually warm and dry spring. So don't delay. If your inner strawberry clock was set for the first week in June as the time when you would begin thinking about jams and shortcake and daiquiris, you're going to miss out. Here it is early June and we're already mid-way through the season.
Almost all of Oregon's strawberries are grown west of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley. Marion County has the most strawberry acreage in the state (about 47 percent), followed by Washington County (22 percent). Other Willamette Valley counties producing significant amounts of strawberries include Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Lane, Linn, Multnomah, Polk, and Yamhill. Of course, there's also some acreage in the north central and southwestern parts of the state.
If you've been living in this state long enough, then you've noticed a significant drop in the numbers of strawberry fields. The Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service reports that back in 1955, the state boasted a whopping 17,500 acres of strawberries. By the time I arrived in 1980, acreage was down to 5,200 acres. Last year 2,600 acres were harvest.
Even with this rapid drop in acreage, Oregon still ranks third in the United States in strawberry production. But it's a distant third, behind California and Florida, and represents only 2 percent of the nation's strawberries. The main reasons for the decline of Oregon's strawberry industry is three-fold: an increased cost of production; a decline in the number of local strawberry processing plants; and huge competition from the Florida and California markets, which have significantly longer growing seasons, cheaper labor and production costs, and a cheaper end-product..
Of course, nowhere in this analysis have I stated a decline in quality. No sir. Oregon strawberries still rank at the top in this department, which makes them all the more dear.
There are many varieties to enjoy, and a thousand different opinions as to which is "the best". And since such judgements are subjective, when it gets right down to it you'll just have to try them all and decide for yourself.
The good news is you won't have to climb to 12,000 feet to do it. Unless you really want to impress a hiking partner.
(NOTE: below the following recipes, I've included some step-by-step guidelines for making jam)
Jan's Exquisite Strawberry Jam
For food preservers with a little bit of canning experience, or adventurous beginners, I'm including my favorite strawberry jam recipe. One that is free of commercial pectin. It's based on my popular recipe for Peerless Red Raspberry Preserves, which is a fast-cook procedure. The resulting preserves are what I would describe as a "soft" gel. But it's a luscious preserve, no commercial pectin giving the jam an unnatural firmness, and full of fresh Oregon strawberry flavor. All that and only about 7 minutes of cooking.
Makes 4 half-pints.
The secret to perfection is the brief, fast cooking in small batches (this recipe cannot be doubled). A wide, shallow pan (a 12-inch cast-iron skillet is perfect) is essential.
4 heaping cups washed and hulled strawberries(1 pound, 6 ounces; to ensure a high pectin content, about 1/4 of the berries should be slightly under-ripe)
3-1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup strained fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon butter
Coarsely chop the berries by placing small batches of them into the workbowl of a food processor and hitting the "pulse" button several times (you can also do this by hand, of course, but it goes pretty slow). You should have 3-1/2 cups of coarsely chopped berries.
In a large bowl, combine the berries with the sugar and lemon juice. Gently stir the mixture using a rubber spatula until the sugar is evenly distributed and the juices have begun to flow; let the mixture stand, stirring gently every 20 minutes or so, for at least 1 hour, but no longer than 2 hours.
Wash 4 half-pint jars. Keep hot until needed. Prepare lids as manufacturer directs.
Scrape the mixture into a 12-inch skillet or saute pan. Add the 1 teaspoon of butter (this controls the production of foam). Bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat, stirring constantly with a straight-ended wooden or nylon spatula. Adjust the heat downward to keep it from boiling over, and boil for 7 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove the skillet from the burner and let the jam settle for about 20 seconds; if any foam remains, skim it off. Ladle hot preserves into 1 hot jar at a time, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth. Attach lid. Fill and close remaining jars.
At this point, the jam may be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months or longer without the quality suffering.
For long-term storage at room temperature, you will need to process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes (at 1,000 to 3,000 feet, process for 15 minutes; 3,000 to 6,000 feet, for 20 minutes; above 6,000 feet, for 25 minutes). Using a jar lifter, remove the processed jars from the boiling water and let cool on the counter, undisturbed, overnight.
NOTE ABOUT THE CONSISTENCY OF THE JAM: This is going to be a very "loose" jam - the kind that moves around in the jar slightly as its tilted. So if you don't like such a soft gel, you might as well steer clear of this recipe. There's also a stronger likelihood of fruit wanting to float toward the top of the jar, which creates a clear layer of jam at the bottom of the jar. Here's how I've managed to repair that phenomenon when it appears to be happening: About 3 hours after the jars have been removed from the boiling water canner, if you notice that that clear space at the bottom of the jars hasn't started to fill in with fruit, then you can begin a cycle of turning the jars on their heads for periods of 60 minutes at a time (gently flip the jars for 60 minutes, then gently flip them back onto their bottoms for 60 minutes; repeat several times during the day or night). This really does seem to work.
Jan's Frozen Strawberry Daiquiri Mix
Makes about 1 quart frozen strawberry puree
There are no special canning skills required to make up batches of this fresh strawberry puree. Just plenty of fresh local strawberries and a little bit of freezer space. This simple puree makes for heavenly rum-laden daiquiri drinks or alcohol-free strawberry-flavored treats all year long.
2 cups granulated or superfine sugar
1/3 cup fresh lime juice (approximately 2 medium limes)
1/4 cup water
1 quart fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
Combine the sugar, lime juice and water. Stir to mix, and then let stand until sugar is almost completely dissolved, about 15 minutes (mixture will be thick).
In blender jar or food processor, combine the sugar mixture with the berries. Blend until smooth. Pour into half-pint, pint- , or quart-size freezer containers. Alternatively, pour the mixture into ice cube trans and freeze until firm, unmold and pack into zip-lock freezer bags.
The mixture will become solid, but will have the consistency of a very firm sherbet, so you'll be able to scoop portions from the main batch, then re-seal the mixture and store back in the freezer.
FOR A 1-SERVING SIZE STRAWBERRY DAIQUIRI: In a blender jar, combine 1-1/2 to 2 ounces rum, 1/4 cup frozen strawberry daiquiri mix (2 average-sized cubes that have been frozen in ice cube trays) and 7 or 8 average sized ice cubes. Blend until smooth. Most blender jars can handle up to 4 servings.
ALTERNATIVE SUGGESTIONS: it makes a delicious non-alcoholic cooler when blended with a bit of sparkling water or soda and ice. Or for a more creamy "Smoothie," blend in milk, a banana or yogurt or vanilla ice cream.
The Original Grace Center Strawberry Jubilee Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
Also known as "Killer-Berries Supreme" around our house. I created these for the very first Strawberry Jubilee, many years ago. They were a huge hit. And rightly so; they're the ultimate chocolate-covered berry. A little more work than the plain-dipped varieties, but worth it.
1 (12 ounce) package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
2 teaspoons almond extract
1-1/2 pints fresh strawberries, with pretty stems intact
In the top of a double boiler, melt the chocolate chips, shortening and butter over hot, not boiling, water (don't rush the process, it should happen slowly and gently or the chocolate will do funny things).
Meanwhile, cream together the 1/2 cup butter and sugar. Beat in the milk and almond extract. This will form a stiff dough.
Now pinch off small portions of the dough and pat out on hand into a thin round pancake (do this quickly or the dough will begin to melt). Place a berry in center of the pancake and form the dough up around the berry, making sure the leaves remain exposed. If possible, chill the strawberries at this point so the chocolate will harden more quickly during the dipping.
Dip the dough-covered strawberries in the melted chocolate, to within 1/4-inch of the almond dough mixture (in other words, leave a rim of the dough exposed for the prettiest appearance) and place on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet. Chill. Remove from cookie sheet when the chocolate has hardened and place in a covered container, in the refrigerator. Berries are best when served within 24 or 36 hours. After that, they begin to ooze berry juice (but they still taste wonderful).
Scofield House Strawberries in White Chocolate Cream
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 ounces coarsely chopped white chocolate
1-1/2 cups whipping cream, whipped to form soft peaks
1 quart fresh strawberries
Place the 1 cup of whipping cream in a heavy-bottomed 1-quart saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the cream just comes to a boil (about 2 to 3 minutes). Remove from heat. Combine sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk in egg yolks with a wire whisk until light and creamy. Gradually whisk in the warm cream to the egg mixture. Return to the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and white chocolate, continuing to stir until the chocolate has melted. Refrigerate overnight.
Gently mix the 1-1/2 cups of whipped cream into the custard. Re Clean and slice the strawberries. Sprinkle with a little bit of sugar if desired. Spoon strawberries halfway into 8 parfait glasses. Spoon 1/4 cup of white chocolate mixture over strawberries. Fill rest of each glass with strawberries. Spoon on another layer of the custard. (For a more decorative touch, instead of simply spooning the last layer of custard on top of the berries, you could fill a decorating bag with the custard and pipe a dollop of custard on top of the strawberries. Chill at least 1 hour to firm up the custard.
Recipe from the Scofield House Bed and Breakfast, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
River Walk Inn Strawberries in Port
1 quart fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced
½ cup good-quality tawny port
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
Combine all ingredients and chill for at least 1 hour before serving. If berries are not sweet, you may sprinkle with a little sugar. Dessert wine is a good alternative to port.
Recipe from River Walk Inn Bed and Breakfast, Eugene, Oregon.
THE BARE MINIMUM EQUIPMENT LIST FOR MAKING JAM:
Most of these items are self-explanatory and will be found in any department store where canning supplies are sold.
- Boiling water canner. If you plan to store all of your preserves in the refrigerator, you won't use this. But if you have limited refrigerator space, you'll want to take the extra steps to "can" your batches of jam, fruits, pickles, and relishes so that they can be stored at room temperature. This requires "processing" the filled and capped jars in a boiling water canner. They're not expensive, and they're usually made from lightweight aluminum or enameled metal. Any pot will do, as long as it will hold several jars sitting on a rack (see below), and still have enough head room to cover the jars with at least 2 inches of water boiling vigorously and not leaping out of the pot.
- Canning jars and lids. The most common sized jars available are half-pints, pints, and quarts. You'll need half-pints and pints for jams, relishes and chutneys, whereas the quarts are handy for bulkier items like pickles and fruits in syrup. All sizes come in either "regular" or "wide-mouthed" tops. Obviously, wide-mouthed jars are easier to fill, however, from an aesthetic point of view, I tend to use more of the "regular" jars.
- Jar funnel. Even if you're using the wide-mouthed jars, you'll need this device for filling canning jars. It's designed to nest on top of an empty jar and direct a ladle-full of preserves (or relish, or salsa, or chutney, or pickles) down into it without leaving messy glops on the jar rim. Get one, they're cheap!
- Jar lifter. Unless your hands are tough enough to withstand a plunge into scalding-hot water, you'll need this device to retrieve filled and sealed jars from the depths of a boiling water canner.
- Lid lifter. A magnet embedded into the business end of a plastic wand, designed to fish out the lids from their hot soaking water. Look, ma! No hands.
Rack - keeps jars off the bottom of the boiling water canner during processing. Also keeps jars from bumping into each other during the process, which helps to eliminate breakage.
STEP-BY-STEP TIPS FOR MAKING JAMS
1. PREPARE JARS AND LIDS:
If you're going to make your jams "shelf stable," as opposed to storing them in the refrigerator, you will need to process the filled-and-closed jars in a boiling water canner. This is the time to fill the canner with water and get it heating up on a back burner while you make the jam. I'll walk you through the "processing your jars in a boiling water canner" further down in the recipe.
Start with freshly-washed canning jars and two-piece canning lids (available this time of year in most supermarkets and hardware-type stores). Wash them by hand in hot, soapy water, then give them a rinse and place the jars, bottoms up, on a towel-lined cookie sheet in a warm oven until needed.
To prepare the lids, just follow the manufacturers directions that came with them. Typically, you'll place them in a pot of water which you'll bring JUST to a boil then remove from the heat. The hot water softens up the sealing compound that is on the flat lids. Leave the lids in the hot water until you use them.
2. PROCEED WITH MAKING THE JAM:
Wash and remove caps from strawberries. Place small batches in a bowl and crush one layer at a time until you have 4 cups of crushed berries. Place the measured berries in a 6- or 8-quart heavy-bottomed pot. Add the sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring this mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Add the butter, and stir it in.
Remove the pot from the burner. Add the entire contents of liquid pectin and quickly stir it into the hot fruit and sugar mixture. Return the pot to the burner, bring to a rolling boil (NOTE: "rolling boil" means a vigorous boil that can't be stirred back down to a simmer), and boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Remove the pot from the heat and place it on a hot pad to settle down for a couple of minutes. At this point, if there is any foam on the surface, scrape it off with a spoon.
3. FILLING AND CAPPING YOUR JARS:
Remove a hot jar from the oven and place it next to the pot of hot jam. Place the jar funnel on top of the jar and ladle some hot jam into the jar. Fill the jar to within 1/4 inch of the top. The space left between the surface of the jam and the top of the jar is called the "head space." Lift off the funnel and place it on a clean surface, like a saucer or dinner plate. To make sure there are no droplets of jam on the jar rim, wipe it with a clean, damp cloth.
"Attach lid." This phrase will be used in all future recipes. Here are the steps it involves: Using your magnetic lid wand, fish out one of the flat metal discs from the pot of hot water. Shake off excess water, and place it on the jar rim with the sealing-compound side down against the jar rim. Next, remove one of the metal screw bands, shake of excess water and screw it down onto the jar. Screw firmly, but not excessively. If you're planning to process your jars in a boiling water canner (see below), then place your filled and closed jar in the pot of hot water using a jar lifter. Repeat the filling and closing with all of the jars, placing each one in the pot as it is filled and closed. You will probably run out of jam before you run out of jars.
4. PROCESS IN A BOILING WATER CANNER (or not):
If you have enough refrigerator space, you can, at this point, simply store your jams in the refrigerator without further ado. They will hold their quality well beyond one year. But if you want to make your jams "shelf stable," so they can be stored at room temperature without molding or otherwise suffering in quality, you need to process the jars in a boiling water canner. In some cookbooks, this procedure is called a "boiling water bath." Use a pot that is deep enough to ensure that the jars are covered by at least 2 inches of water, and that there will be 2 inches of pan left to keep the boiling water from bouncing out while it's boiling.
When the jars are filled, lids screwed on, and placed in the boiling water canner, bring the water to a boil. You may have to adjust the heat slightly at this point to tame the boil - you don't want water leaping out of the pan, but you do want a vigorous boil that won't go away. Boil the jars in the water (this is called "processing") for 10 minutes. (NOTE: The processing time varies from recipe to recipe, although most jams are processed for 10 minutes. After the jars have been "processed", remove them with your jar lifter and place them on a towel in a draft-free area of the kitchen.
5. LISTEN FOR THE PING:
The most satisfying sound to a food preservers ear is the tell-tale "ping, signifying that a vacuum has been formed and the jar is sealing properly. The ping occurs as the lid is sucked down from its convex to concave position. It occurs anywhere between the first few moments after removing the jars from the canner up to an hour or so. After the jars have completely cooled, check the seal by pressing down on each lid. If it's truly sealed, the surface will be solid and won't bounce back to your touch. Place unsealed jars in the refrigerator.