Strawberry Goldmine

When a new business landed itself in my neighborhood last year, the first thing I noticed was that its landscaper chose strawberries as a groundcover in the flowerbeds. Strawberries as a decorative groundcover! Whodathunkit? I didn’t think much more about them until a few weeks ago. Running past, I looked down and saw shiny dots of red within the big, round leaves. Sure enough, I’d struck gold.

It’s obvious that no one is tending to these plants, so I don’t feel guilty about taking advantage of an opportunity that other people are clearly ignoring. I usually pick them at sunset, after the business is closed, so I don’t become a nuisance. I must look a bit strange on my hands and knees, furiously rifling through a flower bed – I’ve had a few people slowly drive past, quizzically peering out their car windows. I even had one concerned citizen circle the parking lot to ask if I was OK. “Fine!”, I said, “Just… uh, weeding!” Divulge my top secret goldmine to a stranger?! I think not!

Over the past two weeks I have harvested over 6 pounds of strawberries from my covert strawberry patch. Granted, these little guys aren’t the plumped, genetically altered mondo-berries you find at the store. Some are gnarly, some are tiny, some are blemished – hey, they’re natural! And the taste is unbeatable. Because not all these little gems are fit for the display case, I decided to make them into something that has all of the taste of a strawberry without having to look pretty: simple jam.

Now I know many people have their tried-and-true secrets and methods for making jam, sometimes involving complicated steps and additives, but this one can’t get any simpler: Strawberries. Sugar. Vanilla. The end.

I started by thoroughly washing the berries, and carefully slicing off the cap. Some people recommend hulling them (cutting out the pithy white insides), but these little guys were so small and ripe that there wasn’t any hull to cut out – they were red and sweet all the way through. I put them in a low, wide saucepan with a few handfuls of sugar and began mashing them with my hands. Be careful with this step – the berries may squirt you! An old t-shirt or an apron will protect your Hermes pastel nicely. Once the berries and sugar were brought to a boil, I lowered the heat and let them simmer for about 25 minutes. It’s important not to stir the mixture while it’s cooking; only skim the foam from the top with a spoon.

After 25 minutes, the jam took on a deep, brilliant red color and I knew it was done. Off the heat, I added a little vanilla to the jam, complimenting the intense strawberry flavor. I rinsed out a canning jar with boiling water and filled it to the top with hot jam, tightly securing the lid. Within a few minutes, I heard a pop, signaling that the jar had sealed itself and the jam was ready for chilling and storage.

The flavor of this jam is like nothing you can buy at the store – one friend even likened it to strawberry pie. Curious myself, I tasted a jar of Smucker’s next to my homemade version, and there was just no comparison. Slather it on a slice of homemade bread with a smearing of butter, and you’ve got yourself something extra special.

If you don’t have an overlooked strawberry patch in your neighborhood, you can certainly buy a few pints of strawberries from the Farmers’ Market. I hear Dickey Farms has an especially delicious variety. You can also experiment with flavor combinations, like adding citrus fruit or mixing berry varieties – raspberries, blueberries or blackberries! I made a batch recently with a thinly sliced orange, and it was deliciously tart and citrusy. Enjoy!

Simple Strawberry Jam

2 lb. strawberries, rinsed and capped
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine the strawberries and sugar in a low, wide saucepan and gently mash the berries with your hands. Make sure that the sugar has dissolved before placing the pan over heat. Over medium heat, bring the strawberry and sugar mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer the mixture for 25 minutes without stirring, occasionally skimming the top to remove any foam that has accumulated. After 25 minutes, remove the jam from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Boil a pot of water on the stove to rinse out your canning jar and lid. Pour the boiling water out of the jar and pour in the strawberry jam (heat resistant gloves help a lot during this step). Tightly seal the jar with the cap and refrigerate until the jam has set.

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