Food & Drink

Make the most of strawberry season after the berries are gone

After you pick your own strawberries, get ready to make jams, jellies and preserves.
After you pick your own strawberries, get ready to make jams, jellies and preserves. jleonard@newsobserver.com

With their heart shape, ruby hue and intense flavor, it’s no surprise that strawberries inspire passion.

They are the symbol of Venus, goddess of love. Accordingly, ancient Romans prescribed them as a treatment for everything from melancholy and fainting to halitosis and gout.

It’s high season for strawberries in North Carolina, so it’s the perfect time to prescribe a bowlful of ripe berries as a cure for whatever ails you. Warmed from the sun and stealthily snacked at any of the you-pick farms that dot the Triangle, or pre-picked at farmers markets and some grocery stores, local strawberries will be available for just a few more weeks, perhaps through mid-June.

Since North Carolina ranks fourth nationally for production of strawberries, and there are about 140 growers the Piedmont region, it really pays to select fruit from local farms. Strawberries lose nutrients and shine quickly after being picked, so berries that need to be transported from out of state typically taste less robust.

“Buying local strawberries results in better flavor, better quality and fresher products,” says Dexter Hill, a marketing specialist at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Last year, North Carolina growers produced more than 14 million pounds of the juicy red orbs. Hill expects this year’s crop, which suffered minimal impact from a late March cold snap, to be equally bountiful.

That’s good news for strawberry lovers. Whether you like to nibble them down to the leafy green cap, tease out their juice with a sprinkle of sugar or tuck them into shortcake with a cloud of whipped cream, there will be plenty to go around.

Canning season

If you want to enjoy this seasonal splendor in the months to come, or plan ahead for holiday giving, this is prime time to process perfect strawberries in jams, jellies and preserves.

If you’ve got the competitive spirit, it’s also time to set your strategy for fall entries to the North Carolina State Fair. Last year, 30 of the 87 jam submissions were strawberry. To stand out, you want to use the best berries you can get your hands on.

Strawberry is a good choice for beginning canners, especially if you add commercial pectin to ensure that the finished product jiggles like jelly instead of sloshing like syrup.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s no need to dump jelly that does not set but is otherwise delicious. Confidently rebrand it as syrup to score big points on pancake day or infuse a cocktail with a splash of summery flavor. Same goes for loose jam, which makes splendid ice cream topping.

While such mini failures can be amusing, unsafe canning practices can cause serious illness. It is important for new canners to follow instructions precisely, not just for the pride of a good result but to shield family and friends from contamination-related illness like botulism.

I’ve been an obsessive canner since I won my first ribbon more than 20 years ago at the Indiana State Fair. I have developed many recipes, including two in “Pickles & Preserves,” by former N&O food writer Andrea Weigl. Two new recipes starring strawberries are offered here.

With experience, canners can experiment successfully by tweaking ingredients and techniques. If you’re new to home preserving, however, stick with recipes from reliable sources for safe and delicious results.

Canning resources

▪ The “Ball Blue Book Guide to Canning” is a classic guide for beginners. Now in its 37th edition, it’s widely available at libraries.

▪ “Pickles & Preserves,” a Savor the South collection from UNC Press authored by former N&O food writer Andrea Weigl, also offers advice.

▪ The USDA Complete Home Guide to Canning, produced by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, is at nchfp.uga.edu. Click on “Publications.”

Roasted Strawberry Preserves with Rosemary

This recipe calls for roasting the berries to concentrate their flavor and keep fruit intact for a glossy preserve made without pectin. Recipe by Jill Warren Lucas.

4 1/4 to 4 1/2 pounds strawberries (about 3 generous quarts), before trimming

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 large lemon, zested and juiced

6 cups sugar

2 6-inch sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and set out two rimmed baking pans.

Rinse a quart of strawberries, shake off water and pour onto a clean tea towel to blot dry; choose an older one as it likely will stain. Trim off caps. Keeping small berries whole, cut larger ones in half or thirds so they’re all about the same size. Place on baking pans and repeat with remaining berries.

Roast berries 30 minutes, then stir gently. Return to oven, switching upper pan to lower rack and lower to upper, and roast another 30 minutes.

Remove trays from oven; transfer berries and accumulated juice from one pan to a mixing bowl. Splash a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar onto the empty, still-warm pan. Using a hard spatula, work quickly to loosen any bits stuck to the pan. Add this to bowl with roasted berries. Repeat with second pan.

Add lemon zest and juice, sugar and rosemary sprigs to berries, stirring well to combine. When mixture has cooled to room temperature, stir again, then cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

Boil 6 half-pint canning jars to sterilize; leave in warm water until needed.

Remove mixture from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Transfer to canning pot and add butter. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Bubble for 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching. Remove from heat when mixture becomes glossy and jammy, or as soon as it reaches 220 degrees on a candy thermometer. If necessary, skim foam.

Remove rosemary sprigs, shaking off any fruity cling, and don’t worry if a few leaves stay behind. Scoop preserves into canning jars, wipe rims clean, then apply lids and screw-on bands. Process 10 minutes in a water bath according to USDA guidelines.

Strawberry Red Wine Jelly

I used an already opened bottle of dry wine with big fruit flavor and low tannin, plus a few grinds of fresh pepper to yield a full bodied, jewel-tone jelly made with pectin. Recipe by Jill Warren Lucas.

4 cups strawberries (before trimming)

1 1/2 cups red wine

1 cup water

Freshly ground black pepper

1 package pectin, such as Sure-Jell Classic

1/2 teaspoon butter

4 1/2 cups sugar

Rinse strawberries and blot dry. Trim caps and cut berries in half. Transfer to blender with wine and water; puree. Pour into saucepan. Add several grinds of black pepper and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat.

Set a jelly bag or colander lined up damp cheesecloth over a large measuring cup or bowl. Pour in warm mixture and allow to drip undisturbed 2 to 3 hours or until liquid measures 3 3/4 cups. Or refrigerate and allow to drip overnight. Resist the temptation to squeeze the bag to make the juice drip faster as it may make the jelly cloudy.

Boil 6 half-pint canning jars to sterilize; leave in warm water until needed.

Pour 3 3/4 cups juice and butter into canning pot. Add 1 package pectin and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to dissolve pectin. When mixture is at a rolling boil, add all sugar at once and stir well to combine. When mixture again reaches a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, allow to boil 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and, if necessary, skim foam.

Pour jelly into canning jars, wipe rims clean, then apply lids and screw-on bands. Process 10 minutes in a water bath according to USDA guidelines.

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