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Strawberries Fresh from the Field

Martha Stewart Living, June 2005

A warm morning at a pick-your-own-berry farm delights the senses. There's the pleasure of seeing bright-red strawberries peeking out from frilly leaves, of feeling the gems' weight in your hand, of hearing idle chatter, and of smelling -- and tasting -- countless sweet berries.

Indulge in a few as you kneel on hay between the rows. You might eat a lot -- this one looks so good you just have to taste it, and this one, and this one, too. The abundance is dizzying. Settle in and add the brightest berries to the pile in your tray. With juice-stained hands, weigh your take back at the stand, then tote the ruby-filled treasure chest home and enjoy your berries some more.

Thousands experience this pleasure each summer at the Thompson-Finch Farm in Ancram, New York, between the Hudson River and the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Marnie MacLean represents the fifth generation of her family to work the more than two hundred acres, a handful of which produce strawberries in any given year. In the past, the land was used as a dairy farm. These days, she and her husband, Don, grow blueberries, raspberries, apples, and, of course, strawberries, which attract droves of loyal pickers. "We have one guy who comes each day for just a quart," Don says. "And then there are others who take up to a hundred pounds home to freeze or turn into jam."

Customers can sample the wares straight from the plant because the farm is organic. Marnie and Don use no pesticides or herbicides, relying instead on a method of rotating crops and weeding frequently to discourage pests. This is quite desirable: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, strawberries retain more pesticide residue when sprayed than most other fruits and vegetables.

The MacLeans plant their strawberries in April, in a new field every season, and pick them the next year. Their varieties -- 'Fragaria x ananassa' 'Jewel' and 'Earliglow' -- are ripe from mid-June to mid-July and are ideal in Zones 4 to 8, even for home gardeners. Your local extension service can tell you the types best suited to your area. To grow your own, plant bare-root crowns sold at garden centers in spring. If the ground is frozen, refrigerate them until the soil is workable. Cover the plants to the crown, and water them when the soil feels dry.

By season's end, Marnie and Don will have sold forty thousand pounds of strawberries, which can be enjoyed in myriad treats. Once home, berries should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, and put to use quickly; they'll be at their best briefly. Prep and freeze any you don't think you'll need within a few days: Rinse them under cold water, dry them, and hull them. Freeze in one layer on a tray; transfer to resealable plastic bags (remove all the air), and freeze again for up to a year.

It's no wonder strawberries are as popular as they are. They're sugar-sweet, affordable, and omnipresent -- even if you can't pick your own, you'll find pints and quarts of them at roadside stands and red seas of them in the produce aisle. Strawberries are good for you, too; they have more vitamin C per ounce than most citrus. They're rich in antioxidants, fiber, folate, and potassium. They are also virtually fat-free and low in calories, with about forty-five calories per cup. Somehow, this makes the idea of topping them with piles of whipped cream feel a tad less decadent.

No matter how you plan to serve berries, let the fruit speak for itself. Dessert can be done in seconds: Drizzle sliced berries with balsamic vinegar or red wine, or smother them with fresh cream. Or take your time with them and make our preserves, which call for just three ingredients: strawberries, lemon juice, and sugar. In any case, don't fuss. Try our update on shortcake, which has a great contrast of textures, crumbly and creamy. To make it, let the berries sit with a little sugar, or macerate them, to release their juices; set out our crunchy biscuits, add a dollop of sweetened ricotta cheese, and top with spoonfuls of berry-thick sauce.

You'll find even the most basic strawberry desserts to be transporting. Each bite, whether of strawberry cake, berries and cream, or even a handful of plain ones from your stash, will conjure the farm -- the intoxicating bouquet dancing past your nose, the sugar on your palate, the happiness of a sunny day.