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May 27, 2009

Locavore Lore: Springtime’s star revealed — behold the strawberry

Is it divinely timed rains or just a deepening awareness of and appreciation for the natural world? Whatever the source, this springtime in the Bluegrass is one of the most spectacular I’ve seen, in both the gustatory and visual realms. It’s a locavore’s paradise with the edible delicacies popping up in gardens, forests and fields, enticing us to seek nourishment from both the consumption and in the recreational revelry of it all. I can’t seem to get myself to go inside; even though I work outside every day, as soon as I have free time, I just want to hike and play outside more.

Reflecting on our own human seasonal evolution as we shift to a more outward focus, the increasing sunlight entices us beyond both external and internal walls we may have constructed. So what’s the perfect way to celebrate the ripening of these literal and metaphorical fruits? Visit your local farmers market and spend some time foraging barefoot in your own backyard.

Since most farmers markets are now open (see page 21 for a list), this is an excellent time to show your support for local growers by stocking up on the bounties they offer. While most people know about the larger markets, there are some lesser-known gems that have just reopened for the season. One of my favorites is the Saturday morning Smoketown/Shelby Park market at Meyzeek Middle School, a unique market comprised of dedicated, small-scale growers committed to bringing healthy local wares to an area of the city with few sources of fresh organic produce.

The Smoketown market is also one of only a few sources of biodynamic produce in the city and offers a variety of local meat, eggs and dairy products as well as local maple syrup, honey, homemade breads and pastries. Not only is this market wonderful because its slower pace nurtures relationships and conversation between growers and patrons, it is also the only market in the city that accepts EBT, WIC and Senior Vouchers and provides additional monetary support for low-income residents through its “Wooden Nickel Program.” Dedicated community members are coordinating to provide free transportation to and from the market for neighborhood residents who can’t drive or don’t own vehicles, and most Saturdays will offer live music, on-site samples, cooking demos from local chefs and children’s activities. To further entice you to visit this eclectic and devoted treasure of a market, the entire open-air space is covered, making it a safe and welcoming haven on both rainy and sunny days. The market, located at the corner of Breckenridge and Preston streets, is open from 9 a.m.-noon, now until November.

But before you head to the markets, what should you expect? A recent conversation with a friend new to farmers markets revealed that a heads-up on what to expect could be useful for the virgin market-goer. Although every season is wonderful to go, this is an especially good time to patronize your market (or at least to visit it with new eyes of appreciation), as some of the stars of the spring harvest are making their debut. One of the most beloved jewels of the produce world — the strawberry — is now available. These ruby-red troubadours of springtime will only be available locally for a short time, and their taste, texture, aroma and mouth-watering flavor make them an excellent primer for the blossoming bounty of the summer season.

Strawberries, like other berries, are filled with a fantastic assortment of health-enhancing qualities, and they are famous in the phytonutrient world as a rich source of phenols. The phenols in strawberries are responsible for their red color, and they also serve as potent antioxidants that help protect cell structures in the body and prevent oxygen damage to organs. Strawberries’ high phenol content makes them a heart-protective fruit, an anti-cancer fruit and an anti-inflammatory fruit, all in one delicious package. In terms of traditional nutrients, they have high levels of vitamin C and manganese and are a great source of dietary fiber, iodine potassium, folate, riboflavin and vitamin B5.

Because they are perishable, strawberries should not be washed until right before eating or using in a recipe, and don’t remove their caps and stems before rinsing, as this will prevent them from absorbing excess water, which can degrade their texture and flavor. If you want to freeze strawberries, adding a bit of lemon juice to the berries will help preserve their color, and leaving them whole will help them retain a higher level of vitamin C.

Although I usually eat mine unadorned, one of my favorite strawberry companions is the dandelion, perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood plant in the minds of weed-phobics across the country. Anything but a nuisance, this precious perennial not only grows an impressive root system that aerates and builds the soil — its flowers, roots, leaves and stems provide a wealth of nourishment. High in minerals and vitamins A, B and C, the leaves are excellent in raw salads or steamed or sautéed. After the dandelion flowers, the leaves can have a bitter edge that can be lessened by cooking them with a little vinegar or soaking them in a little baking soda and water. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the root crowns can be roasted and eaten like any other vegetable. Additionally, it’s strengthening for the liver, and the icing on the cake is that planting next year’s crop only requires making a wish as you blow the dried seed heads into the wind. 

The sharp, somewhat bitter flavor of dandelion greens makes them an interesting support for the tangy sweetness of the strawberry. When gathering dandelion greens, choose the smallest, most tender leaves you can find and be sure to correctly identify the plant with a wildcrafting handbook. There are so many tempting dandelion recipes out there (I keep stumbling on one for deep-fried dandelion flowers, which are reputed to be phenomenal), but I typically just eat the leaves raw. 

 

Strawberry and Dandelion Salad:

2 cups fresh strawberries, quartered

2 cups spring lettuce

1 cup chopped dandelion greens

1/3 cup flax, sesame or olive oil

2 tbs. red wine vinegar

2 tbs. balsamic vinegar

2 tbs. Dijon mustard

3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped

Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Toss greens, lettuce and strawberries. Whisk other ingredients and toss with greens. Enjoy!