In season: strawberries

Strawberries, those bright red jewels of the spring garden, have been appearing in small numbers at local farmers markets since the first of April. As the month goes on, they’ll be available in larger numbers.

Those precious few early pints were probably enjoyed before the shoppers ever got home. William Lobb of Stoke Farm in Bostwick, east of Atlanta, is growing Chandler strawberries, which he sells at the Thursday evening Tucker Farmers Market and the Saturday morning Green Market at Piedmont Park. He says he frequently has customers who buy the strawberries just to add them to the picnic they’re carrying into Piedmont Park.

Lobb says there are several ways to grow strawberries, and this year he decided to buy “tips,” the little plants that grow at the end of the runners of the strawberry plant. Last fall he bought 1,500 tips and potted them up, keeping the soil moist to encourage good rooting. Then they went into the field in October in raised beds with drip irrigation and plastic mulch. “Everybody down here uses plastic mulch. If you don’t, the weeds take over.”

He found this method of growing plants yielded better results than the usual practice of buying bare root strawberry plants. And the resulting strawberries are worth whatever it takes to grow them. “There’s an appreciable difference in the taste of our berries, they have a much higher sugar content than the ones you get in the store.”

At harvest time, the strawberries are put into their pint packages right in the field which reduces the amount of handling the berries get. Then they’re cooled to get the field heat out of the berries. And finally taken to market.

If your strawberries make it home, sort through them and pull the ripest out to eat right away. Store the berries with the caps on and rinse just before ready to use.

Left on the counter the berries will begin to soften quickly, but they’re certainly convenient for easy snacking. Keep them in the refrigerator for longer storage, ideally in a container that allows air to circulate around the berries, but lightly covered so they won’t dry out.

Metrofresh’s Mediterranean Strawberry and Cucumber Salad with Mint and Feta

Mitchell Anderson of MetroFresh offers this strawberry-cucumber salad in season. It’s one of the recipes in his collection of MetroFresh favorites, “Food and Thought: Recipes and Conversation with Mitchell Anderson” (Jera Publishing, $23.95). The book is available at the MetroFresh Midtown location or on the website, http://metrofreshatl.com/midtown/store.

Anderson says sweetness of fresh strawberries, the coolness of hothouse cucumbers, the brightness of fresh mint and savory feta combine for a delicious salad. With the more widespread availability of hydroponically grown cucumbers, this salad is perfect for spring. Anderson prefers these cucumbers because they don’t have to be peeled or seeded and provide a deep green contrast to the berries.

He suggests trying the salad with fresh mozzarella instead of feta and with basil in place of mint for a summer variation.

1 quart strawberries, rinsed, hulled and sliced in thirds

2 hothouse or hydroponically-grown cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup feta, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

4 sprigs fresh mint, leaves chopped

Kosher salt and pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

In a shallow medium serving bowl, put a layer of strawberries at bottom of bowl. Top with an equal amount of cucumbers, a quarter of the feta and a sprinkle of mint, salt and pepper. Continue layering until all berries, cucumber, feta and mint have been added. The salad should be a bright combination of contrasting colors. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Serve immediately. Serves: 6

Per serving: 156 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 3 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 12 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 11 milligrams cholesterol, 155 milligrams sodium.

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