The Time Is Ripe for Picking and Eating North Carolina Strawberries—and the Brilliant Concoctions Local Chefs Make With Them | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The Time Is Ripe for Picking and Eating North Carolina Strawberries—and the Brilliant Concoctions Local Chefs Make With Them 

Rose's Strawberry Sorbet and Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwiches

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Rose's Strawberry Sorbet and Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwiches

In case you missed it, like we almost did, Governor Cooper declared May 2018 Strawberry Month in North Carolina. This is my first spring in the state, and at first, I didn't believe the hype. But the more strawberry dishes I saw popping up on Instagram feeds and local restaurant menus, and the more I heard locals waxing poetic about the ruby jewels, the more I realized that strawberries are definitely a thing around here.

May's almost over, so we suggest you seize the moment and seek out some strawberry love for yourself. Better yet, find a farm where you can pick your own; North Carolina really does have strawberry fields forever. Well, almost. According to the governor's proclamation, the state ranks third in the nation in strawberry production, with the fruit occupying twelve hundred acres of land spread throughout almost every county. Here's a primer on North Carolina strawberries, tips for picking, and a roundup of some of the Triangle's juiciest offerings.

"The Perfect Strawberry"

Karma Lee and her husband, Jim, are celebrating twenty years of growing strawberries at Buckwheat Farm in Apex, where they've mainly produced two varieties. There's Chandler, which Lee describes as "a traditional, old-timey North Carolina strawberry that is soft, super sweet, and super juicy." They're so soft and juicy that they should be eaten as soon as possible, making them perfect for snacking or as a topping for strawberry shortcake.

Camarosa are firmer, less juicy, and have a beefier bite, ideal for dipping in chocolate, making into jams and jellies, or baking into pies and cakes. They keep for four to six days in the refrigerator.

A new variety the Lees grew this year is Ruby June, which Karma describes as the perfect strawberry: the medium-to-large berries are soft, very sweet, and juicy, but they also hold up well in the rain and keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Customers are also smitten, so the seven rows of Ruby Junes get picked quickly, and the picking season typically winds down after May. If you want some, now's the time.

Try Buckwheat, which offers helpful picking tips on its website—green berries will not turn red after picking; leaving the stem and cap on will extend freshness—or find a U-Pick farm near you by visiting ncstrawberry.com/farm-locator.

Strawberry Kombucha at Southern Peak Brewery

Sarah Michalski, kombucha brewer at Apex's Southern Peak Brewery, describes strawberries' sugars as the perfect complement to fermented beverages like kefir, beer, or kombucha. For Southern Peak's strawberry 'booch, Michalski juices forty pounds of Buckwheat Farm's Camarosa and Chandler strawberries, the latter of which she likens to the wild strawberries she grew up picking. The concentrated juice is added to Southern Peak's kombucha, a fermented combination of organic black and green tea. The mixture ferments for several days until the strawberry flavor strikes a balance between tart and slightly sweet and the carbonation, a byproduct of fermentation, hits its peak. With a ratio of one pound of berries per gallon of kombucha, the resulting scarlet-hued beverage is like spring in a glass.

The first week of June, Michalski will also release a seasonal strawberry version of Southern Peak's One Mile Round, a pale wheat beer brewed with local honey.

Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwiches at Rose's Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets

Hat-tip to Instagram user @BitesofBullCity, whose post brought this striking frozen strawberry confection to our attention. Rose's Strawberry Sorbet and Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwiches are a sought-after treat as soon as they hit the menu, and to extend strawberry season from a spring fling to a summer romance, co-owner and pastry whiz Katie Meddis has one whole freezer just for strawberry puree. She sources the berries from Eastern Carolina Organics and Primrose Farm at the Durham Farmers Market, using them as a base in both sorbet and ice cream, which she freezes together in separate layers, cuts into squares, and sandwiches between Meyer lemon sugar cookies.

Strawberry Drop Biscuit at Crawford & Son

"I think there's always been a kind of romantic air around strawberries," says Krystle Swenson, pastry chef at Crawford and Son. "It's one of those first vibrant fruits that come out after a long winter. They're a sign of spring and warmer weather."

Swenson likes to pair strawberries with classic flavor combinations like lemon or rose. For her Strawberry Drop Biscuit, she makes a buttermilk drop biscuit whose texture is somewhere between shortcake and cobbler topping and plates it alongside fresh strawberry ice cream ribboned with homemade strawberry jam, made with berries from Chickadee Farm and TerraStay Farm. The biscuit and ice cream rest atop fresh strawberry slices in a pool of rose-tea strawberry syrup, which adds another layer of strawberry flavor and echoes the fruit's floral notes. The dish is finished with lemon zest, Meyer lemon oil, and locally grown edible flowers.

Strawberry Butter at Acme Food & Beverage Company

As a Southerner, chef Kevin Callaghan says that jam is one of the hallmarks of strawberry season. He describes some of the local strawberries from places like Lyon Farms and Elysian Fields Farm as so ripe and juicy that they practically turn into jam by themselves. One of Callaghan's favorite ways to eat strawberry jam is with butter on warm biscuits, but he has always found it challenging to keep the jam inside the biscuit. To remedy that at Acme's Sunday brunch, he whips homemade strawberry jam into butter with lemon juice and crunchy salt, then serves it alongside his cast-iron-baked Angel Biscuits. Callaghan also puts up a savory strawberry black-pepper jam to bring a taste of spring to cooler months, when he serves it alongside winter-rich foods like pâté.

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