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Did your strawberries arrive early this year? Here's what you can do with them

Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Variety Menu

PITTSBURGH — It's happens to the best of us.

You see something you really like on a store shelf, but for whatever reason, decide you have to think about it. Then, by the time you return, it's gone.

That was the case for me this year with local strawberries.

While I bought several quarts from a local family farm near where my daughters live in Northern Virginia, I figured I still had time to get out onto the farm in Pittsburgh because weather in the D.C. area is always a couple weeks ahead of Western Pennsylvania, right?

Turns out I was wrong.

Unseasonably warm temperatures in early June coupled with some heavy rains ripened local strawberry fields ahead of schedule this year. U-pick opportunities are generally over. While some farms still have staff-picked berries, chances are you're out of luck if you don't get them soon.

"We started picking on May 22, which was about a week early because we had such warm weather," says Carolyn Beinlich, owner of Triple B Farms in Monongahela, which counts U-pick strawberries among its offerings.

"It was ridiculously early, maybe the earliest I've ever seen," agreed her visiting daughter, Rebecca Sodergren, who was a food writer for the PG before moving to Luzerne County a few years ago.

One exception is Simmons Farm in McMurray. While U-pick concluded in June, owner Scott Simmons said they hope to have a steady supply of fresh berries in the market through July 15 since they can supplement their stock with strawberries from other farms that are farther north. (It's smart to call ahead to check availability.)

Strawberry-picking season often marks the transition from spring to summer. If the weather stays cool and relatively dry, farmers can expect to get about a three-week season. "But it really just depends on the temperature," says Beinlich.

This makes me sad, because I saw some really great pictures of fat, gloriously red and juicy local berries at peak ripeness on my social media feed in June. I just figured I had time to actually get around to spending a morning picking them myself.

Eating or cooking with something that's just been harvested most always tastes way better than eating or cooking with something that was picked days or even weeks ago and shipped across the country.

Don't believe me? You don't have to be a professional chef to see there's a huge difference between the weirdly large, often white-shouldered berries grown in California and Florida and ones you pick yourself locally (or buy in the market) from a farm like Triple B and Simmons.

The former often fail the smell test (good berries should be extremely fragrant) or have white tops (a sign they were picked before they were ripe). The latter have an incredibly sweet and fruity aroma and are the color of rubies. And they're so juicy, they leave red stains on your fingers as you eat them.

So I apologize for being late with these recipes, which I tested with Virginia berries in early June.

You can still make them, of course, with grocery store berries, though the result might not be a sweet. Or, adapt them to the season by substituting fresh local blueberries or cherries (currently picking) or peaches (which arrive in July, and last until around Labor Day).

Strawberry Icebox Pie

PG tested

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by a Martha Stewart recipe but honestly, this pie is awesome. It tastes, smells and looks like summer and it's so easy! Even the crust comes together in minutes. And is there anything better than a cloud of homemade whipped cream?

10 graham crackers (2 1/2 by 5 inches)

1 cup sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup unsweetened cranberry juice

2 quarts strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced (a few whole berries reserved for garnish)

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, blend graham crackers with 2 tablespoons sugar until finely ground; add butter and pulse until crumbs are moistened. Press mixture into the bottom and up the side of a 9-inch pie plate. Bake until crust is lightly browned, 12-14 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, cranberry juice, 2 cups strawberries, cornstarch, and salt. Using a potato masher, gently mash strawberries. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Stir in remaining strawberries. Pour into cooled pie crust. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours (or up to 1 day).

In a large bowl, beat cream until soft peaks form. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over cream and continue to beat until soft peaks return (do not overbeat). Spread whipped cream over pie, leaving a 1 1/2 -inch border around edge. Garnish with whole berries.


Strawberry Oatmeal Bars

PG tested

I can't tell why I like these bars more — because they're so easy or because they're irresistible? That's especially the case when the bars are crumbled over ice cream and they also pair perfectly with coffee at breakfast. They're just as good made with gluten-free oats and flour for those with food sensitivities.

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (gluten free if needed)

3/4 cup white whole wheat flour or substitute all-purpose flour or 1:1 baking flour to make gluten free

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter melted (or substitute melted coconut oil to make vegan/dairy free)

2 cups small-diced strawberries about 10 ounces, divided


1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice from about 1/2 small lemon

1 tablespoon granulated sugar divided

Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Line an 8- by 8-inch baking pan with parchment paper so that the paper overhangs two sides like handles.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, ginger, and salt. Pour in the melted butter and stir until it forms clumps and the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture, then press the rest into an even layer in the bottom of the prepared pan.

Scatter half of the strawberries over the crust. Sprinkle the cornstarch evenly over the top, then sprinkle on the lemon juice and 1/2 tablespoon of the granulated sugar. Scatter on the remaining berries, then the remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Sprinkle the reserved crumbs evenly over the top. You will have some fruit showing through.

Bake for 35-40 minutes (edges should be crispy).

Using the parchment-paper handles, lift the bars from the pan. Slice, and serve.

Makes 9-12 bars, depending on how you cut them


Strawberry Salsa

PG tested

This bright and tangy sweet salsa is just as good spooned on top of grilled chicken tacos as it is with chips.

Juice and zest from 1 medium lime

1 1/2 teaspoons honey or maple syrup

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 pint of strawberries, hulled and diced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped (use a smaller jalapeño for less heat, or leave in some seeds for more heat)

1/2 small red onion, chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Chips for serving

Juice and zest from 1 medium lime

In a large bowl, whisk together the lime juice and zest, honey and salt. Stir in the strawberries, jalapeño, onion and cilantro.

Add pepper, to taste, and mix well. Adjust the seasonings if need be. (You might like a little more lime for acidity, honey for sweetness.)

If your strawberries are nice and juicy, you can serve the salsa immediately with chips. If not, allow it to marinate for about 30 minutes. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.

— Gretchen McKay

Easy Freezer Jam

PG tested

Preserve the taste of summer for colder months by making this easy freezer jam. This old-school recipe from Betty Crocker only requires four ingredients and takes less than 15 minutes.

4 cups strawberries, cut in half

4 cups sugar

3/4 cup water

1 package (1 3/4 ounces) powdered fruit pectin

Mash strawberries with potato masher or in food processor until slightly chunky (not pureed) to make 2 cups crushed strawberries.

Mix strawberries and sugar in large bowl. Let stand at room temperature 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Mix water and pectin in 1-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir 1 minute. Pour hot pectin mixture over strawberry mixture; stir constantly 3 minutes.

Immediately spoon mixture into freezer containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Wipe rims of containers; seal. Let stand at room temperature about 24 hours or until set.

Store in freezer up to 12 months or in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Thaw frozen jam in the refrigerator and stir before serving.


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