Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Visit to the Berry Patch

It's June in Iowa, and that means one thing: it's strawberry season! You might remember we planted our own strawberry plants earlier this spring, but they likely won't produce any fruit at all in their first year. But we didn't let that deter us from taking advantage of the season so we did the next best thing.

A local pick-your-own berry farm! Berry Patch Farm is another producer that we first met at the downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, and we liked their produce so much that we decided to drive the 45 minutes to their farm north of Des Moines. It was going to reach 90 degrees by the afternoon, so we got out there right when they opened at 8 AM. Apparently we weren't the only people with that idea...

The friendly farmers directed us to a strawberry field that was ripe this weekend, and gave each of us a row to start picking. They also provided containers, ranging from individual pints up to 10 pound flats. As you might imagine, we opted for the latter.

Now, you can't really see any strawberry plants in that picture of the field. That's because strawberries grow very low to the ground, and some opportunistic weeds are towering above them. To get to the berries, you have to bend, stoop, or outright crawl along the rows. It's also a good idea to wear long pants, and maybe even long sleeves. Even though it's hot, wading through the weeds can be irritating to your skin. But it's worth it when you find a clump of strawberries that looks like this:

These locally grown strawberries are almost nothing like the ones you buy at the grocery store. The skin is ruby red, and the flesh is velvety soft and sweet. The berries were so sweet that the whole field gave off a sugary aroma. We picked a few, then tried a small sample, and then really started picking to get as many of these luscious berries as we could.

We spent about an hour in the field, and these were the (literal) fruits of our labor. We pretty well filled the flats, ending up with 18 pounds of red ripe strawberries. After that work, we were ready to head home and enjoy our harvest. Now, we're always up for a challenge, but 9 pounds apiece is a bit much for even us to eat fresh. But one of the key parts to getting produce in season is finding a way to store it to enjoy year-round.

Strawberries can be made into jams or jellies which would be put up in cans for later. We've done that before, but this time we decided we'd rather freeze them whole. We've lately been enjoying homemade smoothies with other frozen fruits, and these delicious strawberries seem like a good fit for that too. Otherwise, frozen berries can still be used for pies, sauces and many other things.

Freezing strawberries is pretty simple. We cut out the hulls (the top center part of the berry where the stem is attached), rinsed the berries under cool water and patted them dry. Then we stood them all up on a lined cookie sheet without letting any of the berries touch. We put that into our chest freezer for 3-4 hours to get them partially frozen.

We then tossed the berries into ziploc bags for long-term storage. We needed that initial freeze to keep the berries from sticking together in the bags; this way we should be able to pull out a handful at a time to make our smoothies. We'll freeze a little more than half of our haul, and find lots of ways to eat the fresh ones over the next few days. Until we have our own plants, there really is no better way to get fresh produce than going to a pick-your-own farm, and Berry Patch sure is a nice one!

This post has been shared with Simple Lives Thursday.

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