The Naragansett Native American word for strawberry—wuttahimneash—translates to heart-seed berry. The scientific name is Fragaria ananassa, which refers to its sweet fragrance. The strawberry we know and love today is a cultivated plant (in the rose family) that can be traced back to 18th century Europe. It was a hybrid of the North American and a Chilean varieties and is the precursor of all cultivated strawberries today. As the first fruit to ripen in the spring, they are not technically “berries”, but rather referred to as “accessory” fruits. Berries have their seeds within the skin wall, but strawberries have their seeds on the exterior membrane. The strawberry does not develop from the plant’s ovary, but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries. Each seed is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside of it and there are an average of 200 seeds on each berry. Strawberries can be grown from seed, but it’s much more successful to propagate by runners, which grow off the mother plant. Strawberries are perennials and can produce for up to five years.
There are three types of flowering habits: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. This refers to the time period in which the plant produces flowers and fruits and are day length driven. Day-neutral is a type that produces continuously from spring through fall. On average it produces smaller amounts at a time, but over a longer period. The latter produce the bulk of their fruits in one season.
Rich in antioxidants, high in water content, and low in carbs, strawberries have a low glycemic index, so they are considered safe for people with diabetes. They are also high in fiber, which helps feed the friendly bacteria in your gut and improve digestive health. Strawberries also contain high amounts of beneficial plant compounds such as pelargonidin (which gives strawberries their red color), procyanidins, ellagic acid, and ellagitannins (both of which have been proven to capture free radicals).
A lot of this goodness can also mean trouble for some people. Strawberry allergies are fairly common, especially among children. Individuals who are sensitive to birch pollen or apples may experience symptoms. The allergy causing protein is believed to be linked to the color: anthocyanins. White strawberries are usually well tolerated by those who are allergic.
Often partnered with strawberries is rhubarb. Technically a vegetable, rhubarb (or the great yellow as it is known in China due to size and color of its roots) appears in late spring along with strawberries. Rhubarb is a cultivated plant in the polygonaceae family. It’s herbaceous (meaning it has fleshy stems that die back to the ground each winter) and perennial growing from thick rhizomes. The roots were historically used in medicine and it wasn’t until much later that the fleshy leaf stalks were eaten. The large, triangular leaves are very high in oxalic acid, making them inedible.
The color of rhubarbs stalks differ according to the variety as well as how it was grown. The cherry red stalks you see in the grocery stores typically come from hot houses, but the light pink or green varieties are usually locally grown. Like strawberries, the red color comes from anthocyanins, a naturally occurring antioxidant which makes rhubarb a super healthy food. Rhubarb is also high in fiber and potassium.
Originally from China, rhubarb made its way to Greece and then it was eventually imported along the Silk Road—reaching Europe in the 14th century. It was a costly product given the expense of transportation in medieval Europe. Because of the high prices and increasing demand for its medicinal roots, new species were developed in England. Suddenly, an abundance of plants and the decreasing cost of sugar in the 18th century led to the discovery of the palatability of the fleshy stalks making the usage of rhubarb as food a recent innovation.
What to do with this delicious bounty?
Easy and Quick Strawberry Jam
1 quart hulled strawberries
½ cup sugar
2 tbsp. lemon juice
In a food processor, coarsely chop strawberries. Transfer to a large skillet, stir in sugar and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until jam begins to thicken and bubble, approximately 10 minutes. Turn off heat and spoon into two jars and cover tightly. Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate. Once open, consume within two weeks.
Mom’s Rhubarb Bread
Oven: 350 degrees
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. melted butter
Blend together in a small bowl and set aside.
In medium bowl, combine:
2 ¾ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 ½ cups diced rhubarb (about five stalks)
½ cup chopped walnuts (or pecans)
In a large bowl:
⅔ cups your favorite vegetable oil
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Batter: combine sugar, oil and eggs. Beat until light, blend in milk and vanilla. Slowly add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients a little at a time, stirring just enough until all ingredients are blended. Do not over stir.
Pour equal amounts of batter into two lightly greased loaf pans, drizzle the topping over each loaf.
Bake at least 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean
Let cool for 15 minutes before tipping out of the loaf pans onto cooling racks.
*The first step in this recipe is best started the day before
4 cups diced rhubarb
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
4 cups ice
Sprig of fresh mint
*⅔ cup tequila (optional)
Chop approximately three large stalks of rhubarb into 1-inch cubes. Place in a bowl and put in your freezer approximately four hours, or overnight. Once rhubarb is frozen solid, remove from the freezer and put in a colander over a bowl. Let it defrost. This will release all the juicy goodness from the rhubarb without having to cook it. Press out all the liquid and transfer to a pitcher or large quart jar. Add sugar, water and mix. Add tequila once the sugar is dissolved.
Depending on how you like your margarita (with or without tequila), you can pour the sweetened rhubarb juice and ice into a blender and blend just a few seconds. Pour out into four cute glasses, decorate with the mint, toss in a tiny umbrella, and sit back and sip the tastes of spring.
Globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. More than half the fresh fruits and one third of the vegetables in our supermarkets are imported from other countries. But anyone with taste-buds knows that just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it tastes good.
We are incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northeast. The soil in the Rondout Valley is called unadilla silt loam. It is a mineral rich, glacially deposited topsoil ideal for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains. Our region’s farms produce a wide variety of seasonal crops which are bursting with flavor and personality. Here is our Autumnal locavore’s dilemma.
We have so many varieties to choose from; butternut or hubbard? – or should we try kabocha, acorn, buttercup, golden nugget, delicata, pink banana, neck pumpkin, turk’s cap, Long Island cheese, cushaw, cocozelle, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and many, many other squash and pumpkin —which are technically in the same family “cucurbitaceae” varieties—in various colors, shapes and sizes. What does this all mean?
The name “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American Indian word “askutasquash”. Originally believed to have been from Central America or Mexico, humans have used their hard shells as containers for utensils and have eaten the flesh, flowers, and young shoots raw or cooked for almost 10,000 years. Learning from the Native Americans, European settlers adopted squash as a staple in North America. They baked the squash and then cut and mixed it with animal fat, maple syrup or honey.
Saving Seeds and Pollination
The reason we have so many varieties is because people learned to save seeds from squash with the unique qualities they preferred. Many different varieties developed all over the world. Squash are pollinated by insects, so in order to avoid unwanted hybrids, you must make sure that the plant was pollinated by another member of the same variety. The first generation of fruit gets its characteristics from the mother plant, so you will indeed enjoy the delicata you had planted. But say your delicata squash was pollinated by a sugar pie pumpkin, the genes within the seeds will be altered and the following year, when you grow that seed, you will get a pumpcata, or is it a delikin? You need at least ¼ mile between squash varieties to avoid Frankensquash (unless you like that sort of experiment, who knows? You may come up with a fabulous cross that you can name after yourself … Pink Jenana d’ Etamps perhaps?).
Did you know the seeds are edible of all squash and pumpkins? The seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as iron, protein and fiber. So don’t compost them with the stringy guts… Here is what to do with them.
2 cups raw, rinsed and dried squash or pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
After cutting open the squash, scoop out the “guts”. Pick the seeds out of the stringy fiber and toss them into a colander. Rinse under cold water, then pat dry with a tea towel. Spread the seeds into a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Mix it around until all the seeds are coated. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally until they are lightly golden. Allow to cool before snacking. Pumpkin seeds are best soon after roasting.
Curried Coconut Squash Soup
1 medium kabocha squash ( about 3 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 can coconut milk
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt (more or less according to taste)
Hopefully the squash you just harvested the seeds from is a kabocha because curried, coconut squash soup is on the menu tonight and the kabocha, with its thick, solid, waxy, orange flesh that is ideal for soup. Take the two sides of your squash, rub with olive oil and place on a baking tray inside a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (or until completely soft).
Saute the onions, celery & garlic in olive oil in a heavy bottom, 8 quart soup kettle until golden brown. Sprinkle the spices into the kettle and saute until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). Slowly add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
Once the squash is soft, place the roasted flesh into the pot with the vegetables (I leave the skin on the squash for added vitamins & fiber, but you can remove it if you prefer). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and partially cover for 8-10 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and add the coconut milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add salt & pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro & a squeeze of lime juice.
Maple Cinnamon Roasted Neck Pumpkin*
8 cups cubed Neck Pumpkin (*butternut squash can be used as replacement if you can’t locate this graceful giant at your local farmers market. This squash is ideal because it is tender and juicy, yet holds its shape), about 3 lbs of peeled cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne
Preheat oven to 425
Line a baking 2 baking trays with aluminum foil (or use a silpat silicone liner so when the sugars caramelize it won’t be too hard to clean) Spread out the cubes evenly on the trays.
Drizzle the squash with 1 tbsp olive oil and maple syrup per sheet.
Sprinkle each sheet evenly with ¼ tsp cinnamon, salt & pinch of cayenne
Toss the squash on the sheets with clean hands to coat evenly
Place the pans in the preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, switching racks halfway and cooking until all the squash is tender. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and turn on the broiler. Take turns placing each sheet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize (be careful it does not burn! The sugars cause it to brown very fast).
This dish is delicious served warm or cold. As a side , or tossed onto a bed of raw spinach and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
No matter what you call it – squash or pumpkin, our valley is flush with these disparate cucurbits this month. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern or create a delicious meal, get out there and support our local farmers buy purchasing from your local farmstand.