You know the onset of summer is here when you make the stop at the roadside farm stand in pursuit of just picked strawberries. And oh, so worth the trip. It’s strawberry season in Sonoma and the bustle of activity on the corner of Arnold and Watmaugh is a sure sign that summer has arrived. Sonoma’s own strawberry patch, prized for early crops bearing fruit of exceptional sweetness and fragrance, produces luscious berries staining our fingertips and lips, identifying us with the very essence of summer in Sonoma.
Sonoma offers a wonderful environment for growing strawberries. Flourishing on warm, sunny days and cool, foggy nights, for the strawberry, Sonoma is the perfect place to grow in its rich loamy soil. The very best berries can be found in farm stands and farmers’ markets during the summer months, June through August. The Valley’s cool mornings are best for harvesting the fruit and is done by hand to protect the plants’ shallow roots. They must be picked at full ripeness, as the berries do not ripen once off the vine. Choose berries that are plump, firm, bright red without white patches, and with a cap bright green and fresh looking. Size doesn’t matter: all perfectly ripened strawberries, large and small, are equally sweet, juicy, and fragrant. The flavor is influenced by the weather and the stage of ripeness when harvested.
Careful handling and storing will maintain the fruit’s maximum flavor, color, and texture. Gently wash the berries only when ready to use. Rinse lightly, shake off any excess moisture, and use immediately. Once rinsed, the berries spoil very quickly. Keep stems attached until ready to use and be sure to rinse with green caps intact, as this will prevent the absorption of more moisture. Hull the berries after washing and just before using. (Note: A favorite tool of mine is the “tomato shark.” Shaped like a small melon baller with a serrated edge, not only does it stem tomatoes, it’s an excellent tool for hulling strawberries, successfully removing just the green stem and keeping the flesh intact.)
Strawberries are one of life’s simple, sweet pleasures and a culinary treasure in Sonoma. Indulging in a bowl teeming with the plump, juicy berries is simply a delightful experience. Dish them up with some brown sugar and crème fraiche for dipping. Or liberally season sliced berries with freshly zested orange and ground black pepper for an exotic treat. Strawberries are as good to eat as they are for you as they are a rich source of vitamin C and a fine source of potassium and iron. What are you waiting for? It’s time to stain your fingertips red. It’s not summer in Sonoma without strawberries.
Strawberry and Arugula Salad with Balsamic-Hazelnut Vinaigrette
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sweet mustard
½ teaspoon sugar
½ cup hazelnut oil salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ pound arugula, tough stems removed
¼ pound fresh spinach leaves
2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped, for garnish
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, and sugar. While continuing to whisk, add the oil in a steady stream and continue to whisk until the oil is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
2. In a large salad bowl, toss the arugula, spinach, and strawberries with the vinaigrette. Evenly divide among four salad plates and garnish with hazelnuts.