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@example.com or (727) 893-8586. Follow @RoadEats on Twitter.
IF YOU GO
Fancy Farms' strawberry stand, at the corner of Rice and County Line roads in Plant City, is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until about 5 p.m. or until the strawberries are sold out. Take Exit 25 off Interstate 4. For more information, call (813) 478-1486 or go to fancyfarms.com. It's always best to call ahead to make sure that the stand is open because weather or supply may change the schedule.
The fifth annual Spring Strawberry U-Pick is 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 15 at Fancy Farms. This is an annual fundraiser for the 4-H clubs of the Hillsborough County Extension. For more information, call (813) 744-5519.
Wish Farms will also have a U-pick day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 15 at the farm at State Road 60 (Hopewell Road) and Jerry Smith Road in Plant City. For more information, go to wishfarms.com. Check the website before going to make sure weather or supplies haven't affected the event.
For other strawberry U-pick opportunities, go to flastrawberry.com, the website of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Most commercial growers don't open their fields for U-pick until the end of the season, sometime in April.
Sweet Strawberry Vinaigrette
This vinaigrette can be preserved by canning or stored in the refrigerator and used within a couple of weeks. The strawberries give off a lot of juice, and how much sugar is added depends on how much liquid they yield.
5 quarts fresh whole strawberries, washed and stemmed
1 quart (4 cups) white distilled vinegar
Sugar (amount will depend on how much strawberry-vinegar you end up with)
6 (8-ounce) half-pint canning jars (if you are canning)
Place strawberries in a large stainless steel pot or plastic container. Pour vinegar over strawberries. Cover container tightly with plastic wrap and let stand overnight in a cool, dark place. (No need to refrigerate.)
Prepare boiling water canner. Heat jars and lids in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
Strain liquid from strawberries, collecting in a large liquid measure. Liquid should be red and clear (no pulp). Measure liquid.
Place strawberry vinegar in a clean, large stainless steel saucepan. Add an equal amount of sugar, stirring to combine. Bring mixture just to a boil. Remove from heat and skim foam if necessary.
Ladle hot vinaigrette into hot jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band until fit is fingertip tight.
Process jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.
Makes 6 half-pints, or 48 ounces.
Source: Dee Dee Grooms, Fancy Farms, Plant City
Strawberry Romaine Salad
2 large heads romaine lettuce
1 to 2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 cup grated Monterey jack cheese
1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts, optional
Sweet Strawberry Vinaigrette (see accompanying recipe) (or)
Sweet Red Wine Vinaigrette:
1 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 quart jar with lid
Wash romaine and dry. Tear into pieces. Place into salad bowl. (Dee Dee Grooms likes to use a clear bowl to show off the colorful salad.)
Add sliced strawberries on top of lettuce. Sprinkle with cheese and walnuts.
Drizzle with Sweet Strawberry Vinaigrette just before serving. Or make Sweet Red Wine Vinaigrette by mixing oil, sugar, vinegar, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper in jar. Apply lid and band. Shake until thickened. Drizzle over salad just before serving.
Source: Dee Dee Grooms, Fancy Farms, Plant City
Strawberry-Lemon Shortbread Bars
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon lemon zest, divided use
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup strawberry preserves
Garnishes: sweetened whipped cream, fresh strawberry slices
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together flour, powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest in a medium bowl; cut in butter with a pastry blender until crumbly. Press mixture into bottom of a lightly greased 9- by 13-inch pan.
Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until lightly browned.
Meanwhile, beat cream cheese and granulated sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Add eggs, 1 at a time, and beat just until blended after each addition. Stir in fresh lemon juice and remaining 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest, beating well.
Spread preserves over shortbread. Pour cream cheese mixture over preserves, spreading to edges.
Bake 28 to 32 more minutes or until set. Let cool 1 hour on a wire rack.
Cover and chill 4 to 8 hours. Cut into bars; garnish, if desired, with whipped cream and strawberry slices.
Refrigerate leftovers. Store them in an airtight container up to 2 days.
Makes 4 dozen.
Source: Southern Living magazine
Strawberry Balsamic and Olive Oil Breakfast Cake
Vinegar glaze and strawberry spiral:
Olive oil spray
1 pound fresh strawberries
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup golden balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup golden balsamic vinegar
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch cake pan with olive oil spray. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper (this is an important step — it will help your cake release from the pan after baking without disturbing the arrangement of your strawberries). Spray again with olive oil.
Remove stems and slice strawberries vertically. Arrange them in a spiral, starting with the outside layer and overlapping slightly at the bottom of the cake pan.
Combine the brown sugar, golden balsamic vinegar, olive oil and honey in a stainless steel pan and whisk to emulsify. Bring to a boil and stir frequently until thickened enough that it drips more slowly from your stirring spoon. Remove from heat and pour carefully over the arranged strawberries.
To make the cake batter, whisk together in one bowl the sugar, buttermilk, vinegar and eggs.
In another bowl, whisk together dry ingredients: flour, baking powder and salt.
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients in three stages, stirring to incorporate each time. Add olive oil in three stages, folding and stirring to incorporate each time.
Slowly and carefully pour the batter over the strawberries. Don't pour too rapidly, or you'll displace your carefully arranged spiral.
Bake for approximately 1 hour. The cake is done when the top is golden and it has pulled away slightly from the edges of the pan. Cool for 10 minutes, and then run a knife between the cake and the pan to make sure it is completely loosened.
Put a flat plate atop the pan, and then, using potholders, quickly flip the cake while holding the plate tightly to the pan.
Slowly lift the pan, and the cake will be sitting, covered in parchment paper, on the plate. Peel off the parchment paper and be greeted by a beautiful spiral of sweet-tart fruit atop a golden cake.