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It's time for fresh, ripe strawberries!

By B. Rosie Lerner

Purdue Extension Horticulturist

Most of the time when I write my column, I end up behind the time when local food is ripe. This time I know for a fact I am ahead. I believe that because strawberries are the first local fresh fruit, they are among the top three favorites. I enjoy fresh and frozen strawberries just about every way that I can think of. When local berries are ripe is the time to eat them every way that you can think of, so I am writing before they are ripe. Some of my favorite ways are fresh strawberry pie, fresh berries with shortcake, in a beverage, with ice cream and of course just berries.

The weather, be it rain or lack of it and the various temperatures affect the strawberries. Sweet, juicy strawberries are a great addition to your healthy eating, so my advice is, when they are ripe, start eating them and eat them several times a day!

One of the best things about strawberries is that a whole cup has only about 60 calories. When it comes to food value strawberries are an excellent source of Vitamin C, with one cup supplying about 150% of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for the average adult. You might not think so, but strawberries are also a source of iron. Many Americans, particularly women and children, have diets deficient in this much-needed mineral, so it is good to know that one cup of fresh, whole strawberries provides about 8% of the U.S. RDA for iron.

Just think about the flavor of a red, ripe, juicy, and delicious locally grown strawberry. I personally think that the flavor of the berries is best if you eat them while you are picking them. Yes, I know there is a food safety issue, but to me that is an educated risk that is worth it. I will be honest and share that more than once when I have been picking berries I have eaten so many berries that I have paid for an extra quart.

Most of us take the modern strawberry for granted but it took several centuries and a side trip to Europe to produce the strawberry you know today. In the early 18th century, French explorers discovered a plump, red berry being cultivated by the Indians of Chile in South America. They brought several plants back to their homeland where in 1714 the Chilean berry was crossed with a wild meadow strawberry discovered a few years earlier in the North American colony of Virginia. The resulting berry was the forerunner of our modern strawberry.

When selecting or picking, remember to choose fully ripened, bright red strawberries. The berries will change color after picking but the flavor is not the same as plant-ripened berries. The berries you choose should have a natural shine, be plump, well rounded, and have a rich red color with bright green fresh looking caps.

To insure the highest nutritional value, flavor, and appearance, it is best if you use strawberries as soon as they are picked and or purchased. If you want to store berries, they will keep best if arranged in a single layer on a cookie sheet or other shallow container for refrigeration. The cool refrigerator temperature with help keep the berries fresh and bright for several days.

To keep berries at their best do not rinse them or remove caps until just before using. Washing removes the natural protective outer layer. The caps protect the strawberries nutrients, and help preserve flavor and texture. For this reason, never remove the caps before rinsing strawberries. To rinse, place berries in a colander or large strainer and rinse with a gentle spray of cool water. Remember that strawberries are delicate and require the gentle handling.

There are many ways to remove the caps, you can give the cap a gentle twist or use the point of a sharp paring knife. I have a clever little tool for cap removing with a nice ergonomically correct handle, and it really works. Pat the strawberries dry with paper towels before serving whole for dipping in chocolate, in fresh pie, sliced, fresh, cooked, flambéed, frapped or any other way.