Here's another way in which Florida is different from the rest of the country: We are noshing fresh strawberries in February and March while so many other areas are enduring a deep freeze.
As I like to say, "It's our time," and a bounty of red berries is just part of the reason. No humidity and mild temperatures are the other biggies, plus a slew of festivals and other outdoor events.
Hillsborough County, and Plant City specifically, grows the lion's share of the nation's winter berries. There are about 100,000 acres of strawberry fields there, and Carl Grooms tends 230 of them. Now that the weather has turned warm, production is picking up, hastening the ripening.
"We're getting phenomenal flavor," he said last week.
For 40 years, also the length of his marriage, he has been a strawberry grower. And wife Dee Dee Grooms has been cooking with strawberries all of that time. In the early days they were partners in the field, but as Fancy Farms grew, they hired help. She has entered the cooking competition at the Florida Strawberry Festival, which begins its 11-day run Thursday, at least 20 times, taking home ribbons now and then.
The operation has grown into a family affair — a Strawberry Dynasty, according to their website. The comparison to a certain cable TV show is a natural, thanks to Carl's long, flowing beard.
Dee Dee can see the entire farm from her kitchen window, the same kitchen where she makes sweet strawberry vinaigrette for her favorite salad. You don't have to preserve the vinaigrette by canning, even though the recipe that accompanies this story provides those directions. The vinaigrette can be refrigerated in airtight containers, and it's neighborly to give away what you don't think you'll use in a couple of weeks. This is a sweet dressing that is also a good accompaniment for a spinach salad.
Dee Dee can head into the fields anytime she'd like and pick the best of the berry bounty. Most of what's grown at Fancy Farms goes to Plant City's Wish Farms, Florida's largest strawberry grower and broker, but consumers can buy the berries direct at their roadside stand.
She looks for berries that are red all the way through to the stem, and she suggests buyers do that when they are purchasing berries at grocery stores. Once strawberries are refrigerated, they will not continue to ripen and develop flavor. Strawberries purchased at roadside stands or U-pick farms will continue to ripen for 24 hours or so if they are not refrigerated.
Also, she says, if you aren't using them right away, store them in the refrigerator but do not wash them until using. The additional water will make them mushy.
Fresh strawberries can also be frozen. Place them on a baking sheet in a single layer and place them in the freezer. Once they're frozen, transfer them to resealable bags. Frozen berries are excellent for jams, smoothies and baked goods. They aren't great for salads or salsas because they might be a bit soft once thawed.
If you find yourself with a bounty of strawberries this season, here are 10 ways to use them:
1. Make jam. Crush 2 pounds fresh strawberries until you have 4 cups. In a heavy-bottom pan, mix berries, 4 cups sugar and 1/4 cup lemon juice. Stir over heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil until mixture reaches 220 degrees. If you're canning, follow the instructions that come with the jars. If not, refrigerate in a covered container and eat within two weeks.
2. Soak sliced berries in orange juice or Grand Marnier for sauce to drape over ice cream, pound cake or store-bought cheesecake.
3. Make a strawberry facial mask by mashing 8 to 9 strawberries and mixing in 3 tablespoons honey. Apply directly to the skin, let sit for a few minutes, then rinse off.
4. Prepare strawberry salsa for grilled fish or chicken, mixing in ingredients according to your liking. Mix diced strawberries, red onion, jalapeno and bell pepper in a bowl. Stir in chopped fresh cilantro, plus a splash of orange juice, lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Make iced strawberry tea by pureeing 1 pint fresh strawberries in a blender; strain into pitcher. Stir in 4 cups cold iced tea, 1/3 cup sugar (or use an equivalent amount of sugar substitute) and 1/4 cup lemon juice until sugar dissolves. Serve over ice with strawberry garnish.
6. Pile strawberries on waffles with whipped cream.
7. Plop a berry into a flute of champagne.
8. Make a smoothie with berries, ripe bananas or mango.
9. Load a bowl with sliced berries, sprinkle with sugar and dollop with sour cream (or whipped cream).
10. Serve them old school — sliced and added to your Cheerios or oatmeal.
Information from Times files was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow @RoadEats on Twitter.