Tag Archives: strawberries

“I don’t believe I said.” (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Third”)

My dad is more than happy to tell you the story of the eighteen-inch wild brown trout he caught during the green drake hatch. He delights in talking about the beautiful but apparently untouched pool he spotted on the last day of a camping trip. He grins as he describes the visions of that “honey hole” that haunted his thoughts for the next several days, until he finally went back to it around dark-thirty, waded in knee-deep, cast a line, and in no time had caught (and released) that big’un. He will even show you the pictures.

Just don’t ask him, “Now, where did you say that hole was?”

Because he will say, “I don’t believe I said.”

I know how he feels. For years during the early summer, I looked forward to walking over to a brambly but abundant patch of blackberries on the side a road near my house. That spot has given me untold pints of jam. But last year, heartbreak. Someone — more than one someone, I think — had gotten there first and cleaned it out. And then later in the year, someone else came through and bushwhacked the brambles, and that was the end of my blackberry patch.

All year long I grieved my loss. It just seems ridiculous to me to buy blackberries when they grow prodigiously all across the South, but a thicket of wild, publicly accessible blackberries in the city is a rare and beautiful thing. So you perhaps can imagine my joy when, on a long ramble with my dog one day this past spring, I discovered a new patch — this one bigger and more abundant than my old one, harder to reach, and less likely to get mowed down. At this point the berries were tiny, hard, and green. But there would be gallons upon gallons.

Over the next several weeks I kept an eye on “my” spot. I visited frequently to see how the fruit was coming along. I wanted to greedily, jealously guard it from other blackberry hounds that might coming sniffing. And then early this morning, I went back with a sack. In an hour and a half I had picked more than a gallon of berries, and there are plenty more to come. Best of all, I saw nary another soul prowling around my patch. May it stay that way.

This may be my honey hole.

I will give you a jar of jam at Christmas. I will make a blackberry cobbler and joyfully share it with you. I will pour you a tiny glass of blackberry cordial to sip. But don’t ask me, “Where did you say you got those berries?”

Because I don’t believe I said.

This may be an extraordinary year for my newfound secret patch, because by all appearances, 2010 is the Year of the Fruit. Regular visitors to this blog have read my rhapsody on the strawberry and my ode to  mulberry pie. Today I made 22 jars of blackberry jam using basically the same method that I used for the strawberry jam. With the two cups of berries remaining, I riffed on a blackberry cordial recipe with vodka, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick (in eight weeks or so I’ll let you know how that worked out).

Then there are the peaches, which I did actually buy during my very slow road trip last week. I picked up five pounds of Fort Valley, Georgia’s, best from a roadside farm stand. I have heard it said that due to a magic season of atmospheric forces, this year’s peaches are the earliest, most plentiful, and best-tasting in many years. I have to agree. Many I just ate standing over my kitchen sink so that I could rinse my chin afterward. Several wound up in two batches of ice cream — one for Father’s Day, the other for the Sunday night gang.

And oh, the cherries! Over Memorial Day weekend, my family gathered at our mountain homestead in Rabun County, Georgia. On Saturday afternoon, my father, niece, and I walked down the hill to check out the fruit trees that we planted about thirty years ago (I have a hazy memory of being in that orchard with my parents and brother digging holes, placing root balls, and watering by Coleman lantern on a very chilly autumn night.) There amidst the apple and pear trees, blueberry bushes, and grapevines (all holding promise of great things to come later this season) were two cherry trees absolutely loaded with fruit. The birds were none to happy with us for pulling down limbs and loading our sacks with bunches of cherries, but there was plenty for all. They looked like grapes growing on those branches. I took home maybe five pounds of cherries and made cherry-almond-chocolate chunk ice cream for the Sunday night gang, added cherries to some chicken salad, then the rest joined the strawberries and mulberries in the freezer for concoctions later on.

Here are 41 seconds of Dad and me at the cherry tree.

Still to come are the figs and blueberries growing in my yard. It will require some stealth to get to them both before the birds do. But that’s a whole nother story.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

Good strawberry growing advice sometimes sounds a little bloody and violent: “Kill the mother.” “Pinch the babies.”

Last spring I put in 25 or so strawberry plants. I pinched the babies. That is, I picked off every single blossom before it turned into fruit. This, I have been told, strengthens the plants and ensures more vigorous production in future years. So I resisted the temptation to let those blooms turn to berries and instead rejoiced in the way the plants almost instantly began to spread. Forming off of runners—tendrils that shoot out from the mother plant and form new leaves—offspring plants sprung up in circles around each of the mother plants.

You see what’s coming, right?

Pinching the babies paid off in spades. In the past couple of weeks, I have harvested a pint to two pints of strawberries a day. What I didn’t eat immediately while standing there in the patch, I brought into the house, rinsed, hulled, and froze. I also made two batches of jam and two batches of strawberry ice cream.

Two weeks after the strawberry bacchanalia, production is slowing down. I’m getting a half-pint daily—but these later-season berries are also much sweeter and more flavorful than the earlier ones.

Next year the volume won’t be quite as outrageous. The year after that will be even less impressive, as the strawberry plants’ three-year cycle winds down. And this is where killing the mother comes in. Time to man up, strawberry growers.

After their second year of production, you dig out the original plants and leave the offspring that are only in their first year. They will continue to produce and send out runners. Then you take them out, too. That keeps the plants reproducing themselves and bearing fruit.

And that’s how you get strawberry fields forever.

About that jam. I washed and hulled about two quarts for my first run. These berries were so ripe they were almost rotting. Perfect. I mixed them with tons of sugar and boiled it until it had thickened (you can use fruit pectin — Sure Jell — to speed things along but I had time to do it the old-fashioned way).

I then ladled the  jam into hot, sterilized jars, put hot, sterilized lids on the jars, and processed them in boiling water for ten minutes.

Then I took them out and placed each jar on a towel on the counter and waited for my favorite part:

Do you know that sound? That is the sound of hot jars forming a vacuum and pushing the air out of the 1/4-inch of space between the jam and the lid. It is the sound of reassurance that the air-free jars of jam will keep indefinitely on a shelf in time for the holidays.

It’s  worth noting that the recipe for strawberry jam in my grandmother’s 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of home canning is not that different from the one in my 2003 edition.

Did someone say strawberry ice cream? In fact, my friend Cyndi asked for some for her birthday, which was last Sunday. Since it was a special occasion, I spared no riches and made an egg custard base for the ice cream. And instead of using vanilla extract, I started with the actual bean, which I split open and scraped into a saucepan of milk and cream and simmered.

I added in eggs and sugar and cooked it until it had thickened. Then I drained the strawberries, which I had sliced and let sit in lemon juice and sugar, and poured the sweet juice into the custard, and I let the whole thing chill in the fridge thoroughly.

I added in the strawberries and then put the custard into my wonderful Cuisinart ice cream maker to churn for about a half hour. Here is the result.

And here is what a bunch of deliriously happy strawberry-eaters looks like. Not that you didn’t already have an idea.

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Spring Garden Omnibus

Winter has finally given up on us, it would seem. The garden is coming out from hiding and has lots of news to share. Here’s an omnibus of what’s been happening lately.

The sugar snap peas are up. The thinnings were delicious in a stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, tofu, and a spicy peanut sauce with cilantro and chives.

I moved my seedlings indoors and away from the rat who has taken up residence in the potting shed, and I started over for the third time. Here’s hoping.

It’s been a grand winter for broccoli. I’ve begun taking out last fall’s plants and today planted new ones. The cilantro also wintered over magnificently, and I’ve been reaping the rewards almost daily.

Another overwintered showoff — the salad greens. Spectacular.

The strawberries I planted last spring are looking strong, and today I noticed the first two blossoms. Last year I pinched off every bloom in order to have stronger plants in the long run. I’m not good at delayed garden gratification, but good-n-plenty strawberries are worth it.

The Swiss chard I planted a few months ago is doing well. You can see the carrots right behind it that went in about the same time.

Other recent developments: Last weekend I seeded more chard, beets, radishes, and arugula directly into the ground. Today I put out some kale seedlings I bought from the Oakhurst Community Garden plant sale. And in the next few days (just as soon as I purchase some bean inoculant), I’m going to plant a new-to-me heirloom shelling bean variety I’m excited about: Indian woman yellow, it’s called.

Most thrilling of all, last weekend and this weekend, I buried seventeen asparagus crowns. I’m planning to devote a whole post soon to asparagus (I know — geek!), so I’ll save my thunder for now.

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