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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 10:00 pm

Strawberry time

The first ripe local berries are a sweet hit of the farmersÂ’ market

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Untitled Document As usual, things were pretty low-key at the first regular downtown farmers’ market last week. There was an easy camaraderie as vendors greeted each other and familiar customers. There were lots of plants: flowers, herbs, and a wide selection of tomatoes. Spring produce was displayed in all its glory: young onions, bundles of asparagus, ruby red rhubarb, greens such as kale, and different kinds of lettuces, from baby spring mixes to beautifully ruffled heads of buttercrunch.
Hill Street Gardens even had beet microgreens, tiny leaves no bigger than a thumbnail tapering down to a red thread. Hearing my exclamation, co-owner Gus Jones chuckled ruefully: “Yeah, those are beet thinnings.” Boy, did that bring back memories — ones I try to forget. In my produce-farming days, we had 16 rows of beets, each 100 feet long. If beets aren’t thinned out — and the thinning must be done by hand — there won’t be enough room for the roots to develop bulbs, so my memories are of sore knees, an aching back, and keeping my head down as I debated whether I should look up and see just how much farther there was to the end of a seemingly endless row. These days, chefs pay astronomical prices for microgreens (though not at the Hill Street stand), but back then it never occurred to us to sell — or eat — them; we just threw them on the ground. The crowd at the market was good-sized, though not as big as it will be later in the season. The vendors were relaxed, and customers didn’t have to wait — except at the Merwyns’ stand, where the season’s first strawberries were being sold as fast as they could be bagged and a long line of patrons stretched toward Fifth Street. Even at the end of the line, the delicious fragrance of strawberries fully ripened on the plant wafted over us. No berries from the California strawberry megafarms, which supply 80 percent of the United States’ and 25 percent of the world’s strawberries, could ever begin to compete with dead-ripe seasonal strawberries for flavor. They certainly last a lot longer, though — those local, fully ripe berries only keep for a few days. I don’t know, and probably don’t want to know, what they do to megafarm berries to make them last so long. I once found a partial box in the back of my refrigerator that had been there for nearly two months. It was creepy: The strawberries hadn’t even begun to go downhill. Fresh local strawberries are best eaten simply so that nothing interferes with that glorious flavor — by themselves or perhaps sliced and tossed with a little sugar that combines with the juices to make a kind of sauce, then spooned over ice cream, pound cake, or shortcake. The disgustingly gluey, mucilaginous red goop made with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring, and artificial flavoring that’s sold in grocery stores is an affront even to the commercial berries sitting next to it. Smothering fragrant seasonal strawberries with it is almost criminal. Strawberries and rhubarb are a culinary match made in heaven, and the pie described in the accompanying recipe is a marriage in which they can be a couple without destroying each other’s individuality. The cream-cheese layer is tasty but not necessary, although it does help keep the crust from getting soggy if you’re not serving the pie immediately.
Back in line at the farmers’ market, some of the people around me were speculating about the location of the Merwyns’ farm. The consensus was that it must be south of Springfield; after all, most local strawberries don’t start showing up until after Memorial Day. Overhearing this, Dale Merwyn looked up from the flats of berries he was setting on the table as fast as he could: “Nope, we’re from Chandlerville, west and a little north of here,” he said. I can attest to that personally: Our families have been friends as long as I can remember. With a twinkling smile, Merwyn told the crowd, “We’ve got a secret for starting them early.” Whatever the secret is, it works. 

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
FRESH STRAWBERRY- RHUBARB PIE
One pie shell or six or more individual tart shells, baked and cooled
Rhubarb mixture 1 cup sugar 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup chopped rhubarb 2/3 cups water 4 or 5 cups fresh strawberries

Optional 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla
In a medium saucepan, mix the sugar and cornstarch until no lumps remain. Stir in the water and fruit and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about five minutes, until the mixture is thickened and the fruit is cooked through. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. (Don’t chill before mixing in the strawberries; they won’t combine smoothly) Cut the strawberries into halves or quarters, depending on their size. The amount needed will vary, depending on the size of the pie shell(s) and how high you want to pile the strawberries If you are using the cream cheese, mix it with 2 tablespoons of sugar and the vanilla and gently spread the mixture on the bottom of the pie shell. When the rhubarb mixture is at room temperature, gently combine with the strawberries and spread the mixture evenly in the pie shell(s). For an especially attractive presentation, cut up only about 4 cups of the strawberries to combine with the rhubarb. Arrange whole berries, pointed side up, so that they completely cover the strawberry-rhubarb filling. Melt a little strawberry jelly over low heat and very lightly brush the whole berries. Note: The rhubarb mixture is also wonderful used to make other fresh berry pies, such as blueberry, raspberry, or blackberry. It’s also possible replace the rhubarb in the filling mixture with the same berries that are being used uncooked (strawberries will need to be coarsely chopped). If you’re using berries instead of rhubarb, replace 2 or 3 tablespoons of the water with lemon juice.
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