The three of us headed to the Skagit Valley on Saturday for the ultimate strawberry picking event. Jon Rowley, the man who was named the “Disciple of Flavor” by Saveur magazine, organized this second annual field trip north to show us where the sweetest variety of local strawberries are grown. This is the same man who introduced Copper River salmon to the lower 48 states and who is well-known as our local oyster expert.
My first taste of a Shuksan strawberry was last year, when our friend Lorna shared with us some of her harvest from her day of strawberry picking with Jon. These large glossy berries are a beautiful red color all the way through the center, unlike your typical white grocery store strawberry. And they are the sweetest berries I have ever tasted.
They have a brief shelf life, deteriorating in only 24 hours, so they are difficult to stock in stores. However, for a very limited time, lucky Seattleites can find Skagit Sun’s Shuksans at Whole Foods (Roosevelt Square, Interbay, and Westlake) and Metropolitan Markets (Queen Anne, Sandpoint, and Kirkland). Shuksan season only lasts for about three weeks.
Jon Rowley helps Mike cut strawberries for shortcake; fifth-generation farmer Chris McKnight; kids and adults listening to Chris talk about the farm
First pick of this strawberry field at Thulen Farm
Sixty of us met at Thulen Farm in La Conner to pick the first of the season berries. Fifth-generation farmer Chris McKnight first talked to us about how they grow strawberries at his farm, a very small operation. He said that the Shuksan plants are in very high demand, and they have to purchase new plants to keep the berries growing strong. He pointed out a sparse field behind us where the plants were four years old and barely producing fruit.
He then had us grab empty flats and showed us to the field, where the Shuksan berries were hanging heavy under a canopy of green. In no time, everyone had filled their flats to the brim with the brilliant red berries and stained their lips bright red, babies included.
Empty flats waiting for picking; Dawn in the field; unpicked Shuksans
Devouring a strawberry; strawberries awaiting jam and shortcake; Eric and Ian picking together
As if we hadn’t eaten enough berries in the field (pick one, eat one), next up was a side-by-side strawberry tasting of five varieties. The Shuksans and the Hood strawberries were our favorites, although we also enjoyed the Puget Reliance, which reminded Eric of the berries from his childhood.
Kids lined up immediately when Jon started handing out heaping plates of shortcake. They waited patiently as the architectural masterpieces were assembled: half a biscuit, a spoonful of whipped cream, a heap of berries, the other half of the biscuit, more berries, another spoonful of whipped cream, and finally a few artfully placed berries with a drizzle of juice on top. And before Jon handed the plate over, he asked each kid if they would be able to eat the whole plate of shortcake. They nodded solemnly with hands outstretched, and carried it away with a smile. There wasn’t a speck of shortcake left on those plates.
Jon Rowley hands out huge plates of shortcake to the kids, who devoured every bit
Licking the fork clean; I want more berries!
We spent that afternoon hulling and processing all those berries (remember that 24 hour shelf life?). I churned a batch of my favorite strawberry frozen yogurt, and finished the first step in my three-day strawberry balsamic Ferber jam. In the morning, we made blintz soufflés with strawberries, which were so yummy that we plan to make them again this weekend. We also assembled our own architectural masterpiece of shortcake, using David Lebovitz’s three-seed shortcake biscuits. Those seeds add just the perfect crunch and texture.
For the remaining few pints, I tried a recipe for pickled strawberries that my friends Michael and Robin had recommended to me. I recommend you do the same. Sweet and tangy, with a touch of spice, they are a unique way to preserve the sweetness of summer in a jar.
Spiced Pickled Strawberries
Adapted from The Complete Book of Pickling, by Jennifer MacKenzie
6 pints strawberries, hulled (preferably small and just a touch under-ripe)
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups cider vinegar
Puncture strawberries with fork tines and cut any large ones in half.
Combine remaining ingredients together in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar and salt are dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Pour over prepared berries.
Cover berries and let stand at a cool room temperature for at least six hours or overnight.
Prepare canner or water bath, jars and lids.
Re-heat berries, gently stirring occasionally until strawberries are heated through but still hold their shape.
Gently spoon strawberries and hot pickling liquid into hot jars, leaving ½ inch head space. Remove air bubbles and adjust head space as necessary by adding hot pickling liquid. Wipe rim and place hot lid on jar, screwing band down until fingertip-tight.
Place jars in canner and return to a boil. Process for ten minutes.
Turn off heat, remove canner lid and let jars stand in hot water for an additional five minutes.
Transfer jars to a towel-lined surface or a cooling rack and let stand undisturbed until completely cool, about 24 hours. Check lids and refrigerate any jars that are not sealed.
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The pickled strawberries are lovely on their own, but here are some other tasty ideas from folks on twitter:
- @mbruchas: Blue cheese and pickled strawberries tossed with summer greens, or pickled strawberries on ice cream
- @tanukipdx: Chopped chicken liver with whipped ricotta and pickled strawberries on grilled bread
- @jessamyntuttle: Salmon with pickled strawberries
- @hhlodesign: Foie gras with pickled strawberries
- @voraciousgirl: A salad with pine nuts, feta, and pickled strawberries