The time for strawberries starts NOW

There are people living in other parts of the country who actually believe that strawberries come from California or Florida or Mexico.

They believe the strawberry season spans February through, well, December. The required pairing with said berries is copious amounts of sugar to "bring out" their natural sweetness. And a sturdy fork always is necessary in any mashing maneuver to tame their bred-for-the-road firmness.

Tips for successful freezer jams

Use 1- to 2-cup glass or rigid, plastic, freezer containers with tight-fitting lids. There is no need to sterilize containers, but they should be washed in hot, soapy water or run through the dishwasher.

  • For best flavor (and to ensure a proper set), use fully ripe fruit.
  • Use one of the regular commercial pectins that includes recipes for freezer jam. Follow directions exactly and do not reduce the sugar.
  • For any given recipe that you're using, never substitute one pectin for another; they are not interchangeable and each is prepared a different way.
  • Do not double the recipes. Doubling recipes could result in a runny product, and it's hard to dissolve the large quantity of sugar, so sugar crystals could develop during storage and result in grainy jam.
  • Measure accurately and follow directions exactly. The most common reason for failure is inaccurate measuring. Because freezer jam uses large quantities of sugar, it's a good idea to keep a record of each cup as it is measured.
  • Leave at least 1Ā„2 inch head space to allow for expansion of the jam as it freezes.
  • After thawing and opening the container, store it in the refrigerator. Remember, the product is not cooked, so it will ferment and mold quickly if left at room temperature for extended periods of time.
  • For low-sugar freezer jams, consider using the Ball canning product Fruit Jell Freezer Jam Pectin (check Bi-Mart, Walmart and Winco), as well as Sure-Jell Lite

— Oregon State University Extension Service

Pity those people.

And then get ready for the real strawberry season — a season so frustratingly short that it should never be taken lightly. Not here in the Willamette Valley, where our strawberries are considered the culinary equivalent to precious gems. That's because our berries have been bred for flavor, color and juiciness — not travel.

They don't keep as long as those sturdier, jet-lagged varieties, however. That means from a period typically beginning sometime around NOW and rarely extending beyond the second week of July, real strawberry lovers lucky enough to live in Oregon are thinking, breathing and (of course!) eating real strawberries.

There's nothing you can do to alter nature's cycle. So you'll just have to make the most of it. I'm including some fresh-eating recipes to get you started or, perhaps, to simply head you in a new direction in your ongoing search for ways to appreciate our wonderful berries while they're available.

Food preservers, of course, have an edge. They can extend the season of the treasured Oregon strawberry all the way into next winter — and beyond — with just a bit of effort in the next few weeks.

It doesn't have to be extreme. Freezing berries (that are simply rinsed, dried and hulled) in single layers (with or without a coating of sugar) on cookie sheets, then packing them into freezer containers and tossing them back into the freezer, will capture that Oregon berry flavor for up to 12 months. Then you've got a cache of flavor-packed gems to toss into your morning blender drink or to whip up a fabulous berry puree.

With just a slightly greater time commitment, you can assemble uncooked strawberry jams for the freezer. If you've never done this, track down a recipe packed in any liquid or powdered commercial pectin (you'll want to peruse the accompanying list of tips before you get started).

And then, for the most treasured offering of all, there are strawberry preserves. The genuine deal. Succulently sweet Oregon berries, combined in a preserving kettle with sugar and lemon juice and cooked just to the moment where they turn from sugared fruit to exquisite preserves.

The point is that now, when Oregon strawberries are finally ripe for the picking, it's time to bring them into your kitchen and celebrate their brief but exquisite impact on your palate and psyche.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.


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