Bright red strawberries: the first of summer's fruits

The appearance of tiny white blossoms and bright red berries in the strawberry fields is a true sign that summer is on its way. One of the first fruits of the season, strawberries are colorfully displayed in the markets now and will be especially abundant until mid-June.

Longer-bearing varieties should be available all summer into the fall, allowing plenty of time for cooks to try new recipes as well as some favorites from previous summers.

A handful of juicy strawberries to eat plain is probably everyone's first choice at the start of the season.

This is also a good time to make strawberry jam, so there will be plenty to enjoy during the winter months.

Whether you are buying berries for jamming, to eat out of hand, or to use in desserts, be sure to buy the very best.

Strawberry growers in California recommend you look for fully ripened, bright red berries, because strawberries do not ripen after being picked. The berries should be plump and well rounded, with a natural shine.

Don't wash the berries until you're ready to use them, then rinse under cold running water and remove their caps.

Keep in mind that 1 pint box of strawberries equals about 3 1/4 cups of whole berries, 2 1/4 cups of sliced berries, or 1 2/3 cups of pureed berries. Remember too that a pint can vary from about 12 very large berries to 36 smaller berries.

For an old fashioned ice cream soda, put 1/3 cup crushed and sweetened strawberries, 3 tablespoons milk, and a large scoop of strawberry ice cream in a large glass. Fill the glass with chilled carbonated water, stir, and enjoy this thirst-quenching drink.

To make strawberry lemonade, puree 2 pints fresh strawberries in an electric blender. Combine 1 1/2 cups sugar and 3 cups water in saucepan and heat slowly until sugar dissolves. Mix with strawberry puree and 1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice. Chill thoroughly and serve in glasses with plenty of ice. Garnish with whole strawberries.

One of the most delicious and simplest desserts using strawberries is made by dipping them first in sour cream or plain yogurt, then into brown sugar. Leave the berries whole, with the caps on, so a guest will have something to hold on to. Here are some other ways to use this fresh summer fruit: Strawberry Shortbread Mousse Crust: 1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar 1 cup sifted flour Filling: 2 pints fresh strawberries 2 tablespoons lemon juice 3/4 cup sugar 2 packages unflavored gelatin 1/4 cup water 2 cups whipping cream, whipped

To prepare crust, cream butter and sugar. With fork, gradually stir in flour. Pat dough into bottom of 8 1/2- or 9-inch springform pan. Prick with fork.

Bake in preheated 350-degree F. oven for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 300 degrees F.; bake 20 to 25 minutes longer, or until golden. Cool.

To prepare filling, puree enough berries (about 1 1/2 pints) in blender to make 2 cups. Reserve remaining berries for garnish. Blend lemon juice and sugar into puree.

Soften gelatin in water; warm over low heat to dissolve. Stir into berry puree; chill until mixture begins to thicken. Fold in whipped cream. Pour over crust; chill.

Halve remaining berries; arrange cut side down around edge of mousse. Makes 8 servings. Strawberry Spring Thaw 1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar 1 cup flour 1/2 cup chopped nuts 2 egg whites 1 cup sugar 1 pint strawberries, sliced 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup whipping cream, whipped

In jelly roll pan, stir melted butter and brown sugar. With fork, mix in flour and nuts. Distribute over bottom of pan. Bake at 400 degrees F., 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool.

In large mixing bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks, gradually adding 1 cup sugar. Add berries, lemon juice, and vanilla. Beat on high speed until triple in volume and stiff peaks form. Fold in whipped cream.

Spread all but 1/2 cup crumbs in bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Top with egg white mixture, then remaining crumbs. Freeze. To serve, remove ring of pan. Transfer to serving platter. Cut in wedges. Makes 12 servings. Strawberry Salad 1/3 cup vegetable oil 3 tablespoons cider vinegar 2 tablespoons water 1 1/2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon poppy seeds 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/4 teaspoon pepper Lettuce leaves 1 pint fresh strawberries, stemmed and halved 1 small red onion, sliced and separated into rings

In container of electric blender combine oil, vinegar, water, honey, poppy seeds, salt, paprika, and pepper. Blend until thoroughly mixed; set aside.

Line 4 individual serving plates with lettuce. Arrange strawberries and onion rings, equally divided, on lettuce. Stir dressing before serving and pass separately. Makes 4 servings. Strawberry Rhubarb Spring Salad 6 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/2-inch slices (about 1 1/2 pounds trimmed) 1 1/4 cups sugar 3/4 cup water 2 envelopes (1 tablespoon each) unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 pint fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced Lettuce leaves Halved strawberries, for garnish

In large saucepan, mix rhubarb, sugar, and 1/2 cup water. Bring to boil over medium heat; reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb is tender.

Meanwhile, soften gelatin in remaining 1/4 cup water and lemon juice. Stir gelatin mixture into hot rhubarb to dissolve gelatin. Chill until slightly thickened. Fold in sliced strawberries.

Pour into 6-cup mold; chill until firm, about 3 hours. Unmold onto lettuce-lined serving plate. Garnish with halved strawberries. Makes 8 servings.

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