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Slaving and Salivating over Strawberries

Freshly made freezer jam/sauce, along with tonight’s strawberry harvest

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and rather than sitting in traffic on I-75 with the rest of southeastern Michigan, Bill and I have decided to have a “stay-cation.”  I’m thinking we may regret this decision in the next few days, as temperatures are supposed to be in the 80s and 90s, and a cabin on the lake would be much more pleasant than our sweltering sun-drenched backyard.  But, alas, the decision has been made.  Our exciting plans include lots of sweating profusely, venturing into Detroit to visit Historic Fort Wayne and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and trying desperately to keep up with our strawberry crop.

Thanks to an often summer-like spring, our strawberries came in several weeks earlier than usual.  They are in full force now, and a disproportionately large amount of my time has been devoted to picking, coring, and rinsing them….and using them up before they go bad.  But I don’t mind too much because they are oh so tasty!

Besides munching on them with a sprinkle of sugar, here is what we have made so far: Strawberry spinach salad, a pitcher of strawberry mojitos, strawberry-topped vanilla bean ice cream, strawberry smoothies, homemade strawberry banana “ice cream,” and several jars of freezer jam.

My improvised recipe for the smoothies consists of throwing a handful of fresh strawberries into my Magic Bullet blender along with half of a container of Greek yogurt, some crushed ice, milk (Lactaid), and a spoonful of my last jar of freezer jam from 2010.  Sometimes it’s refreshing to drink lunch from a straw, as I did today.

With the hot weather upon us, I’m thankful that I also recently discovered a quick and easy way to make a creamy frozen treat that is very similar in taste and texture to ice cream. Simply slice up a very ripe banana, freeze the pieces, and then purée them to a smooth consistency. Again, I use the Magic Bullet.  It’s the most healthy and natural ice cream you’ll ever have!  A few days ago, I did the banana thing and added in some fresh strawberries.  It had a great flavor, but  it was a tiny bit soupy due to the juiciness of the berries.  Next time, I’ll freeze the strawberries a bit and see if that will make a difference.

Speaking of juicy….my freezer jam is refusing to set up properly.  I followed the recipe in the Sure Jell package to a tee, but after the requisite 24 hours on the kitchen counter it’s not at all firm.  Not sure what went wrong.  The thing I love about freezer jam, though, is that if it turns out runny, it is still perfect for spooning over pancakes, waffles, crepes, ice cream, or adding into smoothies!

 

Just Another Manic Rum Day

Strawberry Mojito

Ah, Monday.  It should be a new beginning, a fresh start, a day to get our week started on the right foot.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.  Sometimes just thinking about the responsibilities of week ahead overwhelms us and puts us in a foul mood.  If that’s you today, well then, it’s time to turn things around.  If you’re feeling like you’re muddling through this Monday, I invite you to do some muddling this evening, too.  I’m talking about plucking some mint leaves from the garden and making mojitos to relax you and lift your spirits (no pun intended)!  And if you are having a good day, a mojito is just the thing to keep it going strong.

We are big fans of rum at our house.  We are also big fans of travel.  So our trip to Puerto Rico a couple of years ago was a perfect match.  While we were there, we sampled different kinds of rum and enjoyed muchos mojitos.  Mint just happens to be a plentiful perennial herb in our garden, so we have been making mojitos at home each summer since then–a much cheaper alternative to paying several bucks for one at a bar or flying to Puerto Rico.  When the strawberries or raspberries are in season, we toss some in for a fresh twist on a classic.

Detailed below is the way that our resident bartender (Bill) brings a taste of the islands to our humble backyard.  Enjoy your Mojito Monday!

BASIC MINT MOJITO

Ingredients for one drink:

  • 12 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 lime, rinsed, and cut into 4 wedges
  • 2 tbsp white sugar
  • 1 1/2 fluid oz white rum
  • 1/4 cup club soda
  • Ice

Directions:

1.  Squeeze the juice of a lime wedge into a sturdy 16 ounce glass.  Add the mint leaves.  Muddle lime juice and mint to break up mint leaves.*   Toss in the rind of the lime.

2.  Add the sugar, and squeeze in the juice of two more lime wedges.  Muddle again to help dissolve the sugar, and then put in the squeezed lime rinds.

3.  Pour in the rum, and stir or muddle to further dissolve the sugar.

4.  Fill glass with ice, and then add club soda.  Give a final stir, taste it, and add more sugar, mint or rum to suit your preference.  Pop in a straw and garnish with remaining lime wedge.

*NOTE:  When making a drink, muddling means to squish the ingredients together to break them up.  We got our muddling instrument last summer when Bacardi was attaching a free one to each bottle.  Needless to say, we ended up with several.  If you do not have something to use for muddling, you could improvise by smashing the ingredients with a detached beater of an electric mixer.

BERRY TASTY ADDITIONS

For a strawberry or raspberry mojito, use about 1/4 cup of berries–hull and halve strawberries.  Muddle half of the berries at the beginning with the mint leaves, and the other half after adding the sugar.

Click BASIC MINT MOJITO for a printable PDF of this recipe.

Strawberry Walnut Bread

Like many people these days, my husband and I have been attempting to adopt a healthier lifestyle.  Growing our own chemical- and pesticide-free vegetables and berries is helpful, but we have slowly been making other changes as well.  We’ve replaced our cleaning products with ones containing more natural ingredients, and I have been using personal care products that are free of synthetic fragrances, parabens, laureth sulfates, etc.  This past year, we have tried to do more cooking in olive oil and drench fewer things in butter.  I am all for exploring more whole-grains, but Bill is holding on to his white bread with a stubborn fury.  Even so, I am quite impressed with the progress we have made; we have recently started taking bike rides together, and I am finding that yoga may very well be my favorite form of exercise.  We have come a long way since the days when I considered Pop Tarts to be an official food group. Still, both of us retain a bit of a sweet tooth, so if we can find a way to sneak some healthiness into an otherwise indulgent dish, we are all for it, as long as the taste is not compromised too much.

Below is the recipe for a dense, moist strawberry bread.  By substituting and switching a few different ingredients, it can be made to suit various levels of fit or fat.  I went with white whole wheat flour, which is a bit of a compromise for us.  Bill doesn’t taste the “wheatiness,” and I feel better about using that than white flour.  Also, whenever I bake something that calls for vegetable oil, I swap unsweetened applesauce for it.  Just those two changes alone make me feel less guilty about consuming the occasional homemade baked goodie. Though I did not do this, I am thinking that the addition of dark chocolate chips could be justified for their antioxidant properties.  If the amount of sugar in the recipe already is an issue, though, I suppose Splenda could be used instead.  I must admit that I did cave in to Bill’s fondness for butter and sprinkled some streusel topping on this; however, it easily could be left off to save some sugar and calories.   Not being a dietician, I have no idea what the calorie count on this bread actually is, and I am quite fine without that knowledge!    This recipe makes two loaves, so I make one to keep and one to give away.  I figure that by doing that, I am cutting the calories in half.  🙂

STRAWBERRY WALNUT BREAD

Bread Ingredients:

  • 3 cups fresh strawberries, hulled, rinsed and sliced
  • 3 1/8 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups unsweetened applesauce
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1  1/4 cups chopped walnuts (or other nuts, or dark chocolate chips), if desired

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two loaf pans.
  2. Place strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with few pinches of sugar.  They can be mashed a bit, but not too much.
  3. Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking soda in large bowl and mix well.
  4. Stir applesauce and eggs into the strawberries.
  5. Slowly add strawberry mixture to dry ingredients, mixing by hand until a nice batter forms. Stir in walnuts. Divide batter and pour into pans.
  6. Top with streusel topping (optional; directions below)
  7. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until inserted toothpick comes out clean.  Let bread cool in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn loaves out, and let them cool completely.

NOTE: Bread my take as little as 45 minutes or as long as 1 hour 15 minutes, so check frequently with a toothpick.

STREUSEL TOPPING

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup cold butter

Directions:

  1. Mix together flour, brown sugar and walnuts.
  2. Cut butter into mixture and stir lightly until crumbly.

Click STRAWBERRY WALNUT BREAD for a printable PDF of this recipe.

A Tale of Two Strawberry Jams

Left: Cooked Strawberry Jam.  Right: Strawberry Freezer Jam

Taste, like all of our senses, has the ability to bring us back to a certain time and place.  We often strongly associate memories with food, and that is how strawberry jam is with me. My childhood summers tasted like sweet strawberry jam up until the point where my grandparents moved away from their northern Michigan lake home to reside full-time in Arizona, when I was about thirteen.  There was nothing better than digging into one of my grandma’s recycled margarine containers filled with the jam she made from the local u-pick strawberry fields.

When our present-day strawberry patch starting yielding more berries than the two of us could reasonably eat in a season, we knew it was time to attempt our own jam-making. No family secrets were harmed in the writing of this blog, as we discovered that Grandma’s Strawberry Jam was most likely made from the freezer jam recipe on the Sure-Jell package!  We were thrilled with how easy it was.  It made several jam-jars full, and we still have a couple in our freezer from last year.  The only disappointment was that it didn’t set up very firmly.  While it was the perfect consistency to top ice cream, French toast or pancakes, it was a wee bit drippy to put on toast with butter or to make a PB&J.

So, this year we decided to try a new recipe, which involved a longer cooking process and the possibility of canning. Having never canned before, we headed to Bed, Bath & Beyond to pick up some supplies.  We got an enormous water bath canning pot with a jar rack for about $25.00 and a nice little kit containing a jar lifter, a magnetic thingie to lift the lids out of the water, a wide-mouth jar funnel, and a contraption to get the bubbles out and measure the head space in the jars. That whole kit was about $10.00. We were expecting to spend twice that for the supplies, so we were pleasantly surprised.  We already had plenty of jars and lids on hand, so it was time to experiment.  Our division of labor consisted of Bill doing a lot of stirring, while I dealt with the water bath canning and conducting tests on the jam to see if it was set enough to can. Both the freezer jam recipe and the link to the cooked jam recipe are printed below, along with a link to a video showing the canning process we followed.

After conducting a taste test on the finished products, I still prefer the fresh, sugary taste of the freezer jam—possibly for nostalgic reasons.  The cooked jam has much more of a subtle, store-bought taste.  We perhaps left the cooked jam boiling for a minute or two too long, because it ended up a slight bit thicker than expected.  Both are delicious, though, so try them for yourself and see which you prefer.  I highly recommend tasting them on some homemade strawberry bread, which is shown in the picture above.  I’ll be posting that recipe soon!

COOKED STRAWBERRY JAM:  http://allrecipes.com/recipe/strawberry-jam/detail.aspx

Note:  Based on reviews from others at the allrecipes site, we cut down the sugar to about 3 cups.  Using 6 cups of halved strawberries, we filled 3 ½ small jam jars.  Next time, I will collect more strawberries to make a bigger batch.

STRAWBERRY FREEZER JAM (The Sure-Jell method)

Note: Sure-Jell claims that using less-ripe fruit makes for a firmer set, which I intend to try next year.  They emphasize using the exact amounts of fruit and sugar called for in the recipe.  Makes 5 cups of jam.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cored and crushed strawberries (about 2 pints of picked strawberries)
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 box Sure-Jell pectin
  • ¾ cup water

Directions:

  1. Stir sugar into crushed strawberries. Mix well. Let stand 10 minutes; stir occasionally.
  2. Stir 1 box pectin and ¾ cup water in a small saucepan (pectin may start out lumpy).  Bring to a boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Boil one minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.
  3. Stir pectin into strawberry/sugar mixture.  Stir constantly until sugar is completely dissolved and no longer grainy, about 3 minutes.
  4. Pour into clean/sterilized containers, leaving ½ inch space at the top for expansion during freezing; cover. Let stand at room temperature 24 hours until set. Refrigerate up to 3 weeks or freeze for up to a year.  Thaw/store in refrigerator.

Click STRAWBERRY FREEZER JAM for a printable PDF of this recipe.

 

CANNING

Here is a link to a YouTube video explaining the water bath canning process:  http://youtu.be/V1jpyXPdCRE

Oh, Crepe!

Crepe-Maker

Yesterday morning we decided to pull out and dust off the crepe-maker that’s been stashed in our basement and indulge in some strawberry crepes for brunch.  Since our kitchen is only slightly bigger than a postage stamp, there are many gadgets that have been banished to the basement for storage and promptly forgotten.  We found the crepe-maker keeping company with the George Foreman Grill and our big ol’ electric griddle.  Bingo!

Now that we’d located the correct appliance, there were two more problems:  1) We had misplaced the instruction manual for the crepe-maker.  2) We needed a recipe for strawberry crepes. After some quick Google-ing, we found directions and a basic batter recipe specifically for our crepe-maker.  We also rustled up an easy-sounding recipe for strawberry filling that would not require us to get out of our bathrobes and head to the store for exotic ingredients.  Many recipes that I will post on this blog were inspired from online resources, but Bill and I usually modify them quite a bit to make them our own. These, however, we made without changing much at all.

Here is how our seldom-used kitchen gadget is supposed to work: The batter is poured into a pie plate, and the crepe-maker is dipped into it.  The crepe batter cooks to a pretty golden
color, and is then peeled off and set between pieces of waxed paper.   We figured that since the recipe makes 16 crepes, we would have crepes coming out of our ears, and we could freeze some and use them later.

Well, being out of practice at crepe-making, we ended up getting about six good crepes out of two batches of batter. Only a minimum amount of swearing was involved when the batter from the first batch began cooking in the pie plate, rather than adhering to the crepe-maker. Nevertheless, the brunch was a success.  The filling was delicious—not too sweet—and topping the crepes with whipped cream added just the right touch.  I think that the crepe-maker may need to make its way into our kitchen more often!

Here is the link to the recipe we used for the filling. I used about an extra ½ cup of strawberries in it:

http://www.food.com/recipe/strawberry-filling-for-crepes-157865

I would imagine that the following batter recipe could be used for making traditional crepes in a pan, if no crepe-maker were available.  If you try it that way, let me know how it
works out.

BASIC CREPE BATTER

Recipe by: MAXIM Crepe Book, found at: http://www.recipesource.com/desserts/crepes/00/rec0025.html

(Supposedly makes 16  crepes)

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2  cup milk
  • 1/2  cup water
  • 1/4  teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine — melted

Place ingredients in blender container in order given.  Blend 30 seconds, stop and stir down sides.  Blend 30-60 seconds until smooth.  Or, mix in bowl with wire whisk or mixer, first combining flour and eggs, adding liquid gradually. Beat until smooth; add other ingredients.

NOTES : Batter can be used immediately or left standing an hour or two to produce slightly more tender crepes.  Batter may be refrigerated up to three days.

The Great Strawberry Hunt / Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad with Sesame Poppy Seed Dressing

When my sister and I were kids, the Easter Bunny used to hide those little foil-wrapped eggs around our house.  Because they were so tiny, we had to look carefully from different angles, hoping to spot that flash of color that would make our hearts jump.  My dad somehow knew where every single egg was hidden, and when we were certain we’d located them all, he’d surprise us by letting us know exactly how many were left.  He would then coach us with “hot” and “cold” clues until the very last one was discovered.

Picking strawberries is  very similar to hunting for those long-ago eggs.  I always make a few passes through the strawberry patch, first snagging the easily seen ones.  Next, I hunker down at a lower angle, coming back the other way to find ones I might have missed.  Finally, I brush aside the greenery to uncover the sneaky ones that are hiding deep down.  I leave the ones that have the tell-tale bite marks from my own little garden bunny and her baby–I don’t mind sharing.  But I do wish that someone would let me know how many more perfect ripe ones are still left hidden, and guide me to them with “hot” and “cold” clues!  Dad!?

Here is a spectacular salad that we have been making with those perfect strawberries for about three years now.  It is beautiful to look at, and the sweet tartness of the strawberries and dressing are complemented by the salty feta and the crunchy almonds.  It is an easy and elegant dish to take when a “dish to pass” is required.  However, I need to invest in a nice cruet for my dressing, since storing it in random jars can be messy.

STRAWBERRY SPINACH SALAD WITH SESAME POPPY-SEED DRESSING

Salad Ingredients

• 1 bag of spinach leaves or the equivalent of freshly picked spinach, torn into bite-sized pieces

• 4 cups sliced strawberries

• Sliced or slivered almonds to taste

• Feta cheese to taste

Dressing Ingredients

• 1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil

• 1/4 cup white wine vinegar

• 1/4 cup white sugar

• 1/4 teaspoon paprika

• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds

• 1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Directions

1. In a large bowl, toss together the spinach, strawberries, almonds and feta cheese.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, sugar, paprika, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds. Spoon over individual servings, and toss to coat. Store in a covered container, shaking well before using again.

Makes approx. 8-10 servings

Party Store Strawberry Shortcake

Our strawberry patch is in full swing, so I’ll be posting some of our tasty creations over the next week or so.

A few years back, we planted a couple of everbearing strawberry plants along the fence in our main garden.  Because they send out runners, they soon threatened to take over, so we dug them up and gave them their own bed along the side of our house.  They have spread and flourished, and we look forward to strawberry picking every June.

We harvested the first berries this year on June 5th, and that evening we were lazily contemplating how to enjoy them.  Strawberry shortcake sounded like the perfect choice, but neither Bill nor I felt like baking or hauling our weary selves to a 24-hour grocery store to buy pound cake.  Bill mustered up the energy to check out the local convenience stores to find something that would serve as a vehicle for our strawberries.  After four cake-less stops, he finally came back with a few Little Debbie Strawberry Shortcake Rolls and a can of whipped topping from a nearby party store.  (A trip to Meijer would have been easier, but I digress…)

I threw some of our freshly hulled and halved strawberries into the Magic Bullet blender (love that thing), along with a teaspoon or so of sugar.  I pulsed it just enough to slightly chop up the berries and make them a bit saucy.   I cut each Little Debbie roll in half, attractively arranged them in a fancy glass bowl for each of us, and topped them with the strawberries and whipped cream.  Not too shabby for a spontaneous–and cheap–late-night dessert!