When you buy strawberries, your car should be filled with their aroma as you drive home. If it is not, you probably should get your strawberries elsewhere.
A good strawberry, grown in healthy soil without herbicides or pesticides and picked when ripe, reveals its quality first through its evocative, nearly intoxicating scent. A tale has circulated for decades about restaurateur Alice Waters and writer Ruth Reichl flying back to the Bay Area with a flat or two of strawberries they had gotten at Chino Family Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, northeast of San Diego. As both women have described it countless times, there was a near riot on the plane as passengers were enchanted by the aromas of the berries. At the time, there were few farmers markets, few farm stands and no restaurants except Chez Panisse focusing on quality ingredients. Most of the passengers had never smelled real strawberries before.
Strawberry season has started in Sonoma County, and it is not without controversy. When you ask if the strawberries you are about to purchase are grown without pesticides, farmers can honestly say “no” even if they use Round-Up, as the product is an herbicide, not a pesticide. It gets even more confusing when you ask whether or not the berries are organic, as “organic” is a designation now controlled by federal law. Dozens of chemicals can be used and crops can still call their harvest organic and farmers with the most conscientious practices cannot use the term without filling out near countless forms and paying a hefty price.
Strawberries top the list of what is called the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of 12 crops that contain the most residual chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), a third of all conventional strawberries tested contained 10 or more pesticides. Spinach is next on the list, followed by nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, sweet peppers and, making it a baker’s dozen, hot peppers.
But it is strawberry season, making it a good time to shift to locally grown fruit without chemical inputs. There are several options, including Santa Rosa’s Tierra Vegetables (651 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa), which is one of the larger producers of quality strawberries. But it is best to start close to home, at a farmers market near you. Ask the right questions, and don’t forget to lean in a bit to capture the aroma.
The best way to enjoy strawberries, especially at the beginning of the season, is neat, berry by berry. They are also excellent sliced (about 1/4-inch thick), sprinkled with sugar (1 to 2 tablespoons per pint), seasoned with several very generous turns of black pepper and roasted in a 425 degree oven for about 12 to 15 minutes and then served with vanilla or black pepper ice cream or a generous dollop of creme fraiche. They are also delicious on a simple baguette sandwich slathered with fresh chèvre; slice the berries, tile them on top of the cheese, season with a little salt and plenty of black pepper and there you have it.
Most recipes for so-called fruit salsas simply add fruit to a tomato salsa. I think the results are much better when the fruit is given center stage without having to compete with the taste of tomatoes. A fruit salsa is not a substitute for a traditional salsa. Best uses include with cheese, especially white cheeses (such as farmer’s, cottage, mozzarella and cream cheese), whole milk yogurt and poached chicken. If you enjoy such desserts as rice pudding, adding a dollop of strawberry salsa on top will make them soar.