California strawberries: a taste of spring

WHILE daffodils, tulips, and azaleas send their colorful message of spring all over southern and middle sections of the United States, for many winter-weary Americans spring is still on the way.

But in California, acres and acres of fields already show a profusion of white blossoms and ruby-red berries. So when the first of these strawberries arrive in the supermarket, buy a pint or two and have a taste of spring.

The weather has been ideal for berries and harvesting started early. Although the peak season is now, these berries will be abundant until mid-June.

Strawberries are in local markets all over the United States, and although the wild and native ones are not here yet, the California fruit brings promises of spring to cooler climates.

The Western growers, who produce about 80 percent of the strawberries sold in the US, take great care that top quality fruit is shipped from the fields this time of year.

Machines are not used for picking the berries. Instead, every strawberry is handpicked and carefully placed into pint baskets.

Millions of dollars have gone into research during the last l0 years, which has resulted in many improvements in the California industry. Today, an average acre will produce more than 22 tons of sweet and tempting berries during the season. In l955 that same acre produced only 11 tons.

When shopping for strawberries keep in mind the following tips:

* Unlike many fruits, they do not ripen after they're picked, so be sure to ''see red'' when choosing a basket.

* Heat is the natural enemy of strawberries, so refrigerate them as quickly as possible to protect the firm texture.

* Wait until ready to use before washing strawberries. Also, keep their caps on while washing to prevent water from diluting the flavor and changing the texture.

This also may be a good time to make strawberry jam and jelly so you'll be able to have that fresh springtime flavor to enjoy next winter.

Fresh strawberries are good with breakfast cereal or plain with cream, and they add a lot of color and flavor to a luncheon salad. But dessert is where they really shine.

Still, you don't need a recipe to enjoy impressive strawberry desserts. Serve freshly sliced berries buried in whipped cream. Top with a plump whole berry.

For a strawberry cooler, blend equal amounts sliced strawberries, yogurt, and skim milk. Sweeten to taste with honey.

For a strawberry fizz, substitute club soda for milk. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

To add extra elegance, serve berries in stemmed goblets. Or present a beautiful bowlful of whole berries that can be dipped in whipped cream or sour cream or brown sugar.

For something fancier, dip strawberries in melted chocolate, then chill to harden in the refrigerator. All-American Strawberry Pie 1 9-inch flaky pie shell (recipe follows) 3/4 cup sugar 1/2 cup flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 cups milk 3 egg yolks 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 1 cup whipping cream 1 1/2 tablespoons powdered sugar 1 pint basket fresh strawberries, stemmed 1 cup fresh or frozen, thawed blueberries Powdered sugar, for garnish

Prepare pie shell; set aside.

In 3-quart saucepan combine sugar, flour, and salt. Add milk, whisk until smooth. Stir over medium-low heat until thickened, 8 to 10 minutes, being careful not to scorch.Beat egg yolks slightly. Mix into milk mixture.

Cook and stir 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in butter and vanilla. Cool 20 minutes.

Pour into cooled pie shell. Chill several hours until firm. Whip cream to form soft peaks. Add powdered sugar; whip to form stiff peaks.

Spread half the whipped cream over pie filling. Arrange strawberries and blueberries on top. Pipe or dollop with remaining whipped cream.

Just before serving, dust with additional powdered sugar. Makes 6 to 8 servings. Flaky Pie Shell

In large bowl combine 1 1/2 cups flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt. With pastry blender or two knives, cut in 1/2 cup shortening until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gradually drizzle 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water over flour mixture, tossing lightly with a fork until dough holds together. Press into a ball.

On lightly floured board, roll out dough into an 11-inch circle. Fit into a 9 -inch pie plate. Fold edge of dough under and flute. Prick bottom and sides all over with a fork.

Bake on bottom rack of a 400-degree F. oven 18 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. If using a metal pie pan, set oven at 425 degrees F.

After baking 6 or 7 minutes, check shell. If bubbles have formed, push down gently with fingers. on rack. Strawberry Ricotta Souffle 1 pound ricotta cheese 1/3 cup granulated sugar 4 eggs 3 tablespoons unseasoned dry bread crumbs 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1/4 cup toasted chopped almonds Powdered sugar, for garnish

Almond-Strawberries (recipe follows)

Generously butter an 8-inch souffle dish; coat with sugar, shaking out excess. Set aside.

In large bowl combine cheese, granulated sugar, 3 eggs and 1 egg yolk, crumbs , flour, and extract. (Set aside egg white in small bowl.) Beat with electric mixer until thoroughly blended.

With clean beaters, beat the remaining egg white until stiff but not dry. Fold into ricotta mixture; pour into prepared dish. Bake in center of a preheated 375-degree F. oven 40 to 45 minutes until lightly browned and edges begin to pull away from dish.

Cool on rack about 3 minutes until souffle begins to fall. Loosen with knife and invert onto serving plate with wide rim; sprinkle with almonds and dust with powdered sugar.

Surround with Almond-Strawberries. Serve warm, cut into wedges. Top each serving with Almond-Strawberries. Almond-Strawberries

In bowl combine 2 pint baskets fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, 1/4 cup powdered sugar and l teaspoon almond extract. Toss to dissolve sugar; cover and chill. Serves 8. Strawberry Torte Almond Meringue Layers 6 egg whites 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/4 teaspoon almond extract 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 cup cornstarch 1/2 cup toasted ground almonds

In large bowl beat egg whites, cream of tartar, and almond extract to form soft peaks. Add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating constantly to form stiff peaks.

Combine remaining sugar, cornstarch, and almonds. Fold into egg white mixture to blend thoroughly.

Generously butter and flour 3 baking sheets; mark 3 8-inch circles. Spread with spatula, or pipe 1/3 of egg-white mixture on each circle to cover evenly.

Bake in a 250-degree F. oven 1 1/2 hours. Turn off oven and leave layers in oven 1 hour longer. Remove from oven, lift layers from baking sheets and cool completely.

Layers may be securely wrapped and stored up to 2 days before assembling cake. Makes 3 8-inch layers. Filling 2 baskets fresh strawberries 2 cups whipping cream 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1 tablespoon powdered sugar 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Stem and slice strawberries, reserving 6 whole strawberries for garnish. Whip cream to form soft peaks; gradually beat in almond extract and powdered sugar to form stiff peaks. Fold sliced strawberries into whipped cream.

Place one almond meringue layer on serving plate. Cover with one-third of the strawberry mixture. Repeat with remaining meringue layers and strawberry mixture. Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Garnish with reserved strawberries. Chill 1 to 2 hours. To serve, cut in wedges with sharp knife. Makes 10 to 12 servings. Icy Strawberries and Melon 2/3 cup sugar 2/3 cup water 2 pint baskets fresh California strawberries 1 1/2 cups cantaloupe cubes 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 1/2 cups cantaloupe and/or honeydew melon balls 1/4 cup whipping cream 1 tablespoon powdered sugar Mint sprigs

In small saucepan, stir sugar and water over medium heat to dissolve sugar. Bring to boiling; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Stem 1 basket of berries and puree in container of electric blender with cantaloupe cubes, and lemon juice.

Stir in cooled sugar mixture. Pour into shallow bowl and freeze until mixture is firm about 1 inch around edge.

Break up with spoon and beat until almost smooth. Cover and freeze several hours until firm. To make sauce, stem remaining berries and puree half in container of electric blender. Stir in cream and powdered sugar.

To serve: Set aside strawberry cantaloupe ice at room temperature 20 minutes. Spoon 2 tablespoons sauce each into shallow serving dishes.

Top with small scoops of ice, melon balls, and remaining strawberries, equally divided. Garnish with mint sprigs. Makes 8 servings.

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