Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sunshine strawberries

California agribusiness has somehow convinced most people that "strawberries" are something available year-round, in big, almost un-bruisable, non-perishable form. But for a few weeks in June, all over the rest of the country, farmers' markets bloom with the smaller, more delicate, vastly more flavorful version of the over-fertilized monsters. Of all fruits, the strawberry is perhaps the most delicate: almost heady with flavor when fresh, it defies nearly all attempts at preservation: in the freezer it turns to mush; processed into syrup it becomes cloying; made into jam it goes from pink to ruddy and flowery to cooked-tasting. Apricots, at the other extreme, often get much better with cooking, or drying, but strawberries always seem to degrade.

When I first moved to Michigan, I happened upon a jar of strawberry preserves in Kroger that were like no other commercial jam: "a limited edition made via a special process scientifically proven to preserve strawberries at their peak of freshness...," they recalled the homemade jam I'd once had at a friend's farm in Oklahoma: bright pink and bursting with fresh flavor. Why can't they make all strawberry preserves like this, I wondered?

Last year I tried making my own strawberry preserves in what seemed the most unintrusive possible way: mix the berries with sugar, add lemon juice, and cook with pectin just long enough to set. The result was better than standard commercial jam, but still a far cry from the special Kroger stuff, or the homemade kind. There must be a way to avoid cooking the berries, I thought, to preserve that fresh-off-the-vine flavor. And there must be a way to thicken the juice without either prolonged cooking or commercial pectin, which turns out to be mostly dextrose and other dubious ingredients.

The Joy of Cooking offered an irresistibly titled recipe for "Sunshine Strawberries," in which the berries, mixed with sugar, are allowed to "cook" in the sun rather than on the stove. Forgetting certain complexities, like the need for not just a few hours, but two or three days, of sun, I set out to follow the recipe. I washed and hulled three quarts of strawberries. I'd bought a whole flat, but after three quarts my fingers were stained and sore, my sink a mess of stems and bad spots. I quartered or halved the berries, depending on size, and mixed them with three cups of sugar (a bit much, perhaps, but sugar is a preservative as well as flavor-enhancer), and let the mixture stand overnight, in sealed tupperware in the fridge. Naturally, it rained the next day, so I let the berries stand an extra 24 hours. The next morning, after boiling the mixture gently for ten minutes to ensure sterilization for the eventual canning process, I spread them out in a glass pie plate and two Corningware casseroles, covering the latter with their own lids and the former with the glass lid from a 16-qt. stockpot. I placed the trio on a bench in the sunniest spot of my backyard garden and waited.

It was a cloudy day, so I wasn't too surprised to find the berries little changed by evening, except for having attracted several small battalions of winged ants. Fortunately, the marauders had only managed to climb into the edges of the berry mixture, becoming paralyzed as soon as they hit the syrup. I fished them out with a teaspoon and stashed the berries in the fridge overnight.

The next morning I covered each container with cheesecloth, omitted the glass covers, and set them out again. By evening the berries had darkened and thickened somewhat, and once again attracted about a dozen ants. I removed the pests, refrigerated the berries, and hoped for sun once again.

On the third morning I "mummified" each container as best I could by wrapping it up completely in cheesecloth, put the glass covers back on, propped each container up on a baking rack or wok stand, lay aluminum foil below the lot (to maximize sun absorption, since the weather had been unseasonably cool and cloudy),
and hoped for the best. The trick with coverage, I'd discovered, is that you can't seal the containers completely with glass or the like, because moisture needs to escape. On the other hand, even the smallest opening seems to be sufficient for ants. By evening on this day noticeable thickening had finally occurred. The mixture in the pie plate, in particular, resembled proper jam. But the other two mixtures were pretty runny, and I figured that if I'd come this far, I might as well push the process for one more day.

The fourth day brought the kind of weather I'd been hoping for: high close to 80 and not a cloud to be seen. I got the berries out by 7 am, even before the sun reached them, and left them there until after 7 pm. (On previous days I'd often missed several hours due to a late start or threat of rain.) By evening the berries had really changed: they didn't quite "wrinkle," or gel when mixed with water, but they did coat the spoon, and had lost a great deal of liquid. I'm not sure strawberries have enough pectin truly to gel, no matter how long they stand in the sun, or even boil on the stove.

The proof of any preserves, of course, is in the eating. These tasted great before canning, and I got 4 nice half-pint jars filled with them and sealed. But to me the magic of canning is having the taste of summer in winter, so I don't plan to open these for many months yet. Check back in December or so to find out whether it was worth all the bother. In the meanwhile, enjoy the many delights possible only with fresh strawberries, like the classic, simple, all-too-often bastardized shortcake.