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Table Talk: Strawberry season

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A weekly blog about food, farmers and everything in between.

Growing up, my classes always finished at the very end of June. We spent most of that last month in the muggy heat of packed classrooms, eagerly awaiting the freedom of summer vacation. Everywhere else, students were approaching the halfway point of theirs.

I always struggled to fill my first weeks of vacation with as many summer activities as I could fit. Watermelon figured prominently into my plans, as did swimming, canoeing and fireworks-watching. But the best part of these weeks was always the strawberries.

My cousins and I ate strawberries in cereal, on yogurt, with shortcake, in pies. But it was always hard to beat sitting down with a carton and eating the strawberries by the pint, the dim red outlines around our mouths giving away our greediness. And then, almost as quickly as the strawberries had appeared, they were gone for another season.

I don’t get two months of summer vacation anymore. Sometimes I’m so busy with other things that I forget about those little, early-July celebrations of summer.

But strawberry season has stayed the same. When I brought home a carton of strawberries last week, my friend and I raced through the entire box in under five minutes. I looked around the room, worried that my grandmother would get angry at us for eating the whole box. But there was no one there to say anything about it, and there were only a few weeks left of strawberry season. We had to go out and get more.

Strawberries are the perfect celebration of early summer; they arrive between early and mid-June, and once they are here we only have about a month to enjoy their sweet, clear flavor.

Sue Evans grows strawberries on Marble Rose Farm in East Middlebury. She owns the 17-acre organic farm with her husband; they have had it for 13 years. The farm grows a wide variety of other crops, including watermelons, green beans, pepper, raspberries and tomatoes.

Evans and her husband are originally from Schenectady, N.Y. After both were laid off from their jobs at General Electric in Schenectady, they started working on farms and, eventually, decided to buy their own.

The couple made a chance decision to drive over the Crown Point bridge, which led to the discovery of several pieces of land in the Middlebury area. After some deliberation, they bought a plot of land in East Middlebury in the fall of 1995. The land is near the quarry, and according to Evans the marble and minerals in the soil helps the plants. This is especially good for strawberries, which grow best in sandy soil.

Strawberries came in earlier than usual this year, says Evans; on her farm they ripened around the beginning of June, which means that they will only go until the beginning of July. The rainy spring has wreaked havoc on the delicate strawberry crop on her farm. By contrast, the peas are less affected. They have been thriving in the wet weather.

“That’s why we grow more than one crop,” she says.

One of the reasons that the strawberry plants have had so much trouble, says Evans, is that the rain has rotted them. Even though some of the discolored berries are still good to eat, consumers will not buy a berry that looks rotten.

“Spraying would’ve helped this year,” she says. If the farm had not been organic, they could have used fungicide to combat the rot.

But what hits one organic farm hits others, and ultimately Evans is glad to be in Middlebury. Here there are many people who choose local strawberries over cheaper strawberries that are flown thousands of miles from California.

And even though some berries have rotted, there are still boxes of Vermont berries to be found on the tables of the farmer’s market and at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. So eat as many berries as possible now. Enjoy the season, because the June berries won’t be back for another year.

So what happens after you buy your tasty box of strawberries, local or non? Of course, it’s hard to beat eating an entire box of fresh, ripe strawberries in one sitting. But what do you do with the second box? Or the third? Strawberry shortcake is good, but there’s always room for other options.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
Recipe courtesy Miriam Hill

Ingredients:
1 lb rhubarb, clean, with any (poisonous!) leaves removed
1 pint strawberries
Enough orange juice to cover bottom of a baking dish (or try substituting for lime juice, or a combination of the two)

Slice rhubarb into bite-sized pieces (about 1 inch). Cut tops off of strawberries and halve them.
Toss rhubarb and strawberries together with juice and pour into the baking dish.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350º until the rhubarb has cooked down and the liquid is bubbling.
Uncover and continue to cook until the liquid has thickened. Total cooking time should be between 45-55 minutes.

Serve over shortbread, in a pie, on vanilla ice cream or yogurt.

Strawberry Pepper Salad

1 bunch spinach leaves
1 pint strawberries
black peppercorns
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil

Grate pepper over strawberries and toss together until well-coated. Add spinach leaves, vinegar and olive oil; toss all together and serve!

Optional: add chevre cheese and pecans or candied walnuts.

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