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by Pat Mugridge

There are some foods that are so linked to a season that mere mention of them brings back memories. Strawberries are one - they just sing out summer!

While we've been pleasantly spoiled by the year-round availability of greenhouse and South American strawberries, nothing really compares to the juicy sweetness of the strawberry at the peak of their season. Californian berries start arriving in our markets in April and May. The homegrown Ohio fruits are at their best in June, though available throughout the season.

You might consider purchasing a bulk package (usually 6 quarts or more) to realize the best savings. That way you'll have plenty of berries to eat in all the traditional ways, i.e., shortcakes dipped in brown sugar, sliced in cereal, or a big bowl of strawberries in cream (my personal favorite). Plus, you'll have enough fruit to try something new

How about trying strawberry freezer jam? The appeal of freezer jam lies in the rich color and full fresh fruit taste. Cooked jams and jellies have a caramelized sugar as a result of the cooking process, changing the taste of the fruit. Freezer jam tastes only of the fresh fruit. It also retains the original fresh fruit color. Best of all, it's fast and easy, and no canning equipment or tedious sterilizing is necessary.

Strawberries are also easy to freeze for future use. Freeze the whole, cleaned fruit on a cookie sheet. After they are frozen solid, put the fruit into a freezer container for storage. When you're ready to enjoy a cold drink, the frozen fruit can be thrown in a blender along with other fruits or juice of your choice (try sliced peaches and a little bit of O.J.). The frozen berries replace ice cubes in the fruit smoothie, making a drink that is not watered down and is full of intense fruit flavor. You can also freeze other fruits in the same way, such as banana chunks, other berries, sliced peaches, and plums. Package a mix of your favorites in individual freezer bags for fruit drinks in a flash.

The frozen strawberries can also be used for tasty fruit sauces. Heat the berries slowly in a sauce pan over a low to medium flame. There is no need to puree the berries, as they will break down as they thaw and heat. Add sugar to taste. Stir, mashing the berries with a spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved. For a more liquid sauce, add a little water or fruit juice to the mix. If you'd like a thicker sauce, heat it a little longer (to let more water evaporate), or add some corn starch mixed with cold water and let it come to a boil.

Adding corn starch makes for a more jellied sauce, similar to those commercially-available. To make a more elegant version, puree the completed sauce and then put it through a strainer to remove the seeds. The result is a luscious, smooth red sauce that can be puddle under a chocolate fudgecake, or drizzled over meringue shells filled with ice cream for a very upscale dessert. Either sauce is also delicious over pancakes, shortcakes, waffles, or as a base for mixed drinks.

Last June I made a mouth-watering sorbet that was fast and simple. I put cleaned, hulled berries in the food processor with a splash of lemon juice and sugar to taste. I processed the mix to a puree, leaving just a few chunks of berries intact for texture. I put the puree into an ice cream maker and finished according to the manufacturer's instructions. The machine I used is the sort that has a separate canister that is pre-chilled ahead of time. It is then placed in the base unit, the mix is poured into the canister, the unit is switched on and in 20 minutes the sorbet is done!

These machines are inexpensive ($40.00-$60.00) and readily available. They make a nice addition to your summertime kitchen. If you don't have an ice cream machine, freeze the sorbet in shallow trays, stirring it frequently as it freezes. This will break up the large ice crystals, and make for a smoother finished product. This refreshing sorbet is bursting with strawberry flavor. When served in chocolate shells, it makes a dessert that is so amazingly delicious it is almost decadent.

A simple strawberry spinach salad makes a nice first course for a summer meal. It's even tasty enough to enjoy in winter when berries aren't at their best. Now, when the berries are sweet and juicy, the salad is especially good. The sugared almonds that garnish the salad are so good you'll be tempted to eat them out of hand. Try them on other salads or dessert as well. You'll definitely find your self turning to this simple recipe again and again.

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