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Fresh pickings

| Sunday, June 11, 2006

Plump ripe strawberries are available fresh and juicy at a lower price than in the chain grocery stores.

What's the catch• You have to pick them yourself.

Picking your own berries is a popular summer activity, especially for families.

"Most pickers are coming for the experience of coming with their families," says Reed Soergel, of Soergel Orchards, one of the sons of owner Warren Soergel.

Soergel says he wants his fields to be kid- and family-friendly.

"We want people to come and enjoy themselves," he says.

Pickers will get a late start this year. The unusually cold weather and few nights of frost earlier this spring delayed the strawberry crop growth. Usually ripe and ready at the beginning of June, many of the berry patches won't be available for pickers until the middle of June.

But for many pickers, the wait will be worth it.

"One thing about Pennsylvanian-grown produce is that it is so much better than something that is grown in California because of our weather conditions," says Kathryn Paskorz co-owner of the Paskorz Farm, in West Deer. "You come here and you pick a ripe berry. You couldn't get a product that fresh in a store."

Non-local strawberry crops are often picked slightly green and not quite ripe to ensure a safe trip to the stores, where the berries will then ripen.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh area crops won't be as big as they have been in the past. The cold weather slowed the crop growth, and many strawberries suffered from the frost.

"The April 29 frost hit our early crop of strawberries," says Helen Snyder, of Snyder's Farm, in Butler County. "Then the May 23 frost got the rest of the crop."

Snyder says this won't deter families who come to pick their own berries every year.

"There are some people where it just feels like it's their thing, like a tradition," Snyder says. "The same people will come every year and say picking strawberries is on their calendar."

Not all pickers are there with their families. The serious pickers come out to the fields to gather strawberries for their own pies, jams and jellies. Others pick strawberries for the exercise.

Paskorz understands those people who are enthusiastic to get out and do some manual labor.

"Some people just love to go out and pick and de-stress," Paskorz says.

However, the relaxing activity has the potential to become a headache for unprepared pickers. In order to make your berry picking time as enjoyable as possible, the farmers recommend wearing sun block and a wide-brimmed hat when picking, because there isn't any shade in the fields.

They suggest wearing sneakers and comfortable clothing, including long pants to protect from bug bites, and wearing bug spray. And berry-pickers should bring something to drink to keep themselves hydrated.

Top picks

Strawberries are season first at many farms now, followed by blueberries at the end of June and raspberries in July and August. Prices listed are for pick-your-own strawberries.

Allegheny County

Paskorz Farm: Strawberries this month, followed by blueberries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, and Fall red and yellow raspberries. 8 a.m. -8 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. weekends. 36 Starr Road, West Deer. $1.59 per pound. 724-265-3073.

Soergel Orchards: Strawberries start with the Strawberry Festival 11 a.m.-4 p.m. today, followed by blueberries. Pick-your-own begins Monday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and weekends. Call for details and availability. 2573 Brandt School Road, Franklin Park. $1.29 per pound. 724-935-1743 or www.soergels.com .

Reilly's Summer Seat Farm: Strawberries and black raspberries this month, followed by blueberries and, red and golden raspberries. Limited berry availability for the 2006 season, call for details. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. 1120 Roosevelt Road, Ohio Township. $1.10 per pound. 412-364-8662 or www.reillyssummerseatfarm.com .

Triple B Farms: Strawberries this month. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Hayrides to the berry patches available until 1 p.m. 823 Berry Lane, Foward Township. $1.19 per pound. 724-258-3557 or www.triplebfarms.com .

Butler County

Huff Strawberry Farm: Strawberries available this month. Call for details. Prospect, Butler County. 724-865-9593

Synder's Farm: Strawberries now, followed by black raspberries, red raspberries and blackberries. 8 a.m.-dusk weekdays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Route 68 in Chicora, six miles northeast of Butler. Prices not available. 724-445-3116.

Washington County

Simmons Farm: Strawberries available. 8 a.m.-noon and 6-9 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-noon weekends. 170 Simmons Road, McMurray. $1.50 per pound. 724-941-1490.

Trax Farms: Strawberries now, followed by blueberries. Strawberry festival from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. today. Berry picking hours are 8 a.m.-noon and 4-7 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-noon on weekends. 528 Trax Road, Finleyville. $1.69 per pound. 412-835-3246 or www.traxfarms.com .

Westmoreland County

The Berry Patch: Seven varieties of blueberries starting the weekend of July 4. 8 a.m.-dark daily during berry season. Rural Route 1 Blueberry Lane, New Florence. Located seven miles north of Ligonier on Route 711. Look for the sign to Antiochian Village. 724-238-4714. www.ligonier.com/berrypatch

Fayette County

Duda's Farm: Strawberries available now. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Sundays. 157 Creek Road, Brownsville. $1.19 per pound. 724-246-7601.


Strawberry-Rhubard Pie

This recipe is a variation on one from "Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields" (Broadway Books, 1998).

  • Pastry Dough (recipe follows)
  • 1 1/2 pints strawberries, stemmed, divided
  • 2 cups diced rhubarb
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Prepare the Pastry Dough. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the Pastry Dough to line a 9-inch pie pan. Flute the edge of the shell and prick the bottom with a fork. Press aluminum foil into the bottom and up the sides of the shell and cover the foil with dried beans to prevent the crust from swelling during baking.

Bake for 8 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, return the crust to oven and bake until the crust is light brown, for 10 to 20 minutes. Cool before filling.

Place half the strawberries in a pot and mash them with a fork or potato masher. Add the rhubarb and 1 cup sugar. Combine the cornstarch with the water, lemon juice and salt in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the cornstarch. Add the cornstarch mixture to the strawberry mixture. Cook over medium heat until the mixture is thick and the rhubarb is tender, stirring often.

Pour the strawberry-rhubarb mixture into pie shell, then top with the remaining berries. Cover and chill.

Combine the cream, 2 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla and whip until soft peaks form.

Serve the pie garnished with the sweetened whipped cream.

Makes one 9-inch pie.

Pastry Dough

  • Water and ice cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening

Pour water into a measuring cup and fill with ice cubes to chill. Set aside.

Sift the flour and salt together into a mixing bowl. Work the shortening into the flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender, until the mixture is the consistency of coarse meal. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork after each addition. The dough should be just moist enough to hold together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before rolling.

Strawberries in Red Wine

You can serve these strawberries with ice cream, whipped cream or crisp cookies. The recipe is from Fine Cooking magazine.

  • 2 pints strawberries, rinsed, stemmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more as needed
  • 1 cup dry, fruity red wine, such as light-bodied Zinfandel or Sangiovese

In a deep, nonreactive bowl, toss the strawberries with 1/4 cup sugar. If the berries are hard and not very sweet, you may need to add a little more sugar. Add the wine, making sure the berries are covered.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the berries sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour, but no longer than 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve the berries with the juices.

Makes 4 cups.

Roasted Strawberries

This is a child-friendly version of the Strawberries in Red Wine recipe. As the strawberries roast, their juice thickens into a beautiful sweet sauce that's perfect with ice cream or whipped cream.

  • 1 quart (about 1 pound) ripe, fresh strawberries, hulled
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar

Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Toss the strawberries in a bowl with the sugar. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and roast, stirring every 5 minutes, until they're soft and fragrant, for about 15 minutes.

Transfer the baking sheet to a rack to cook for 5 minutes, then scrape the berries and their juices into a small bowl.

Refrigerate until cold, for about 2 hours or as long as a day. Spoon over ice cream or drizzle with whipping cream.

Makes about 1 3/4 cups.

Fresh Strawberry and Mango Salsa

This salsa, seasoned with roasted sweet red pepper, chives and lemon juice, would go well with pan-seared sea bass.

  • 1 small sweet red pepper
  • 1/2 cup medium-diced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup medium-diced fresh mango
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped chives
  • Zest and juice from 1 lemon (preferably Meyer)
  • Salt and freshly cracked white pepper, to taste

Fire-roast the pepper on a stovetop burner: Hold it with a heat-proof utensil directly in high flame and cook all sides until evenly charred (black). Remove from the heat, place in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until room temperature. Peel off the charred skin. Remove the seeds and chop the pepper. Measure out 1/4 cup chopped pepper to use in this recipe, and refrigerate the rest for another use.

In a small mixing bowl, toss 1/4 cup chopped roasted pepper, the strawberries, mango, chives and lemon juice and zest. Season with salt and white pepper.

Makes 1 cup.

Additional Information:

Details

Berry-Picking Etiquette

  • Keep children supervised.
  • Don't throw unwanted strawberries.
  • Stay in designated rows.
  • Finish a row before you move on to the next.
  • Be careful not to step on the berries when they're on the vines.
  • Bring your own container -- not all farms offer containers. Bring a box or basket rather than a bag -- a bag will smash the berries.

Source: Marie Duda, co-owner of Duda's Farm

Storing strawberries

  • Refrigerate the berries as soon as possible.
  • Do not remove the stems or wash the berries until you are ready to eat them.
  • Do not cover the berries with plastic -- doing so traps moisture, creating a condition that is ideal for mold growth.
  • Freeze the berries to keep them for long periods of time: To freeze, remove the core, wash and dry the berries thoroughly, place on a baking sheet and freeze. After they are frozen, place the berries in a freezer bag and return to the freezer.

Source: Marie Duda, co-owner of Duda's Farm

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