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Hopes for a sweet summer — strawberries are coming in

One of the best indicators that spring has arrived is the availability of fresh, local strawberries. Even with our unusual spring weather, it appears that growers have produced another bountiful strawberry crop.

Berries are just beginning to ripen in some operations. Other growers have about a week or so before they will begin their berry harvest.

Strawberries are a nutritious, fat-free food, high in vitamin C and a significant source of fiber in the diet. A serving of strawberries contains more vitamin C than a medium orange.  These berries are also high in antioxidants, ranking third in these substances out of all fruits and vegetables tested. Frozen strawberries retain all the nutritional benefits of fresh strawberries.

Rowan County strawberry producers initiate the planting with pre-chilled plants in early fall. The pre-chilled plants are often shipped from Canada. Plants are individually planted on black plastic with drip irrigation underneath.

Strawberries are actually perennials, however, Rowan County producers use them as annuals each season. Using black plastic and drip irrigation provides cleaner and earlier berries, eliminating waste in irrigation and fertilization practices.

After the growing season is over, usually in late May or early June, spent plants are quickly removed. Most growers then use the plastic raised beds to produce other vegetable crops.

With all the new cultivars and grower innovations available, growers still must overcome fluctuating spring temperatures, diseases and insects, not to mention fickle customers.

These are just a few variables growers must conquer before producing an abundant crop. Fortunately, Rowan County producers have the skills to produce wonderful crops under often less-than-perfect growing conditions.

Darrell Blackwelder/for the Salisbury Post The black plastic helps keep strawberries warm and encourages ripening.

Upside-Down Strawberry Skillet Cake

Serves 8

Butter or cooking spray

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 tsp. ground ginger

1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced into thin rounds

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

2 large eggs

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/2 cup whole milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Cut out a round of parchment paper and line the bottom of a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Coat the skillet with butter or cooking spray.

Whisk 1/2 cup of the sugar, cornstarch and ginger together in a medium bowl. Add the strawberries and stir so the berries are fully coated; set aside.

Whisk together the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the eggs, butter, milk and vanilla and mix with a hand mixer on medium speed just until smooth, about 1 minute. (Alternatively, whisk by hand.)

Spread the strawberries in an even layer in the prepared skillet. Pour the batter over the strawberries and use a rubber spatula to spread in an even layer.

Bake until the cake is lightly browned and springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 35 minutes.

Let the cake cool in the skillet for at least 15 minutes, then run a knife along the edge of the pan. Invert the cake onto a large plate and carefully remove the layer of parchment. Serve warm or at room temperature, sliced into wedges.

Leftover cake can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

How To Make Any Fruit Butter in the Slow Cooker

Makes about 6 cups

5 pounds strawberries or desired fruit

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Equipment: Colander, knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, 6-quart or larger slow cooker,
immersion blender

Prepare the fruit: Rinse the strawberries under cool water. Remove their stems and halve. (For other fruit, peel or pit as needed, then cut into 1-inch chunks).

Season: Put the strawberries or fruit into a 6-quart or larger slow cooker. Add the sugar and salt, and stir to combine.

Slow-cook: Place a wooden spoon or wooden chopsticks across the top of the slow cooker, then place the lid on top (this will allow the fruit butter to vent and reduce). Cook on the LOW setting, stirring every few hours, until thick and spreadable, 10 to 12 hours. Make sure to re-vent the lid after each stir.

Cool: Turn off the slow cooker, add the lemon juice, stir to combine, and let cool completely uncovered. If you want a smooth consistency, blend with an immersion blender or transfer to a stand blender and blend.

Store: Transfer to sealed containers and refrigerate or freeze. Store in the refrigerator for up to 10 days or in the freezer for 6 months. The fruit butter can be stored at room temperature if properly canned (but refrigerate once the jars are opened).

Strawberries and Cream Bread Pudding

12 cups day-old French bread (about one pound) cubed

4 cups milk (whole or 2%)

4 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

4 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 tsp. vanilla

1 1/2 to 3 cups strawberries, sliced

For the glaze:

2 Tbsp. melted butter

1/4 cup whipping cream

2-3 cups powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Mix milk, cornstarch, granulated sugar, egg, lemon juice and vanilla in a large bowl. Add the bread cubes and stirs until all are coated.

Fold in the sliced strawberries and pour into pan. Bake for 35-45 minutes until lightly golden. Remove from oven and cool while you make the glaze.

Place butter and whipping cream in a bowl and microwave until melted. Whisk in the powdered sugar and vanilla until smooth. Pour over the bread pudding 10-15 minutes after it comes out of the oven.

This produces a soft, juicy bread pudding.

Note: If you don’t have a bowl large enough to accommodate all the bread, place the bread into the baking dish with the strawberries and pour the milk mixture over all. Press the bread down slightly to soak in the liquid.
— From Garnish and Glaze

Strawberry Salsa

1 quart strawberries, diced

1 medium red onion, very finely diced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and very finely diced

1 jalapeño, seeded and minced (save some seeds for more heat)

Big handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Salt and pepper

Put the strawberries in a bowl with the onions, bell peppers, jalapeños and cilantro. Add some salt and the juice of the lime. Mix, cover and refrigerate so flavors can blend. Zest the lime before juicing and add that to the salsa, if desired.

If you want a hotter salsa, do not seed the jalapeño or use a hotter chile, such as a serrano.

Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman, serves this in shredded chicken tacos, but it would also be good on nachos.

Darrell Blackwelder retired as the county Extension director with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.

Deirdre Parker Smith contributed to this story.

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