You think you know strawberries. You’ve been eating them all your life. But you haven’t had a real strawberry until you’ve had an Oregon strawberry.
Though we moved from the Bay Area to Portland six years apart, Wendi and I both had the same strawberry epiphany our first June here. All of a sudden there were long lines in front of the berry booths at the farmers markets. We couldn’t imagine what the fuss was about. But we dutifully got in line and … had our minds blown.
Oregon strawberries are so much sweeter and more flavorful than any other strawberry either of us had tasted. And the Hood variety is truly the Platonic ideal: meltingly tender, fragrant, sweet as candy, ruby-red through and through. This may sound like hyperbole but it’s actually an accurate description.
Hoods are so perfect they will ruin you for anything else. But they’re problematic to grow and their season is short, which means you’ve got to get them while you can. And they don’t transport well, which means you should probably move to Portland if you haven’t already, or at least plan to vacation here in June.
Lucky for us (sorry to sound smug, but we are lucky), we can buy a just-picked flat at one of our many local farmers markets, or even take a 20-minute drive to a farm and pick them ourselves.
And that’s exactly what we do each June, when the Hoods and the other similarly wonderful varieties of Oregon strawberries begin to ripen. Most families have their preferred berry farms. We often hit Kruger’s on Sauvie Island because it’s close and they have a well-stocked market where we can pick up things like canning supplies, snacks and produce for dinner.
When you have strawberries this good, you don’t want to mess with them too much, but you also want to preserve their short season as long as possible. So instead of cooking them into jam and losing that fresh berry flavor, we often make freezer jam.
Freezer jam (also called no-cook jam) relies on powdered pectin, not heat, to set into a spreadable consistency, so it tastes more like fresh fruit. You smash the fruit, stir in sugar and liquified pectin, and ladle into jars. That’s it. Stash the jars in the freezer for long-term storage or refrigerate and eat within two weeks.
Obviously freezer jam is far quicker to make than traditional cooked jam, and without any stove action kids can make it themselves and it won’t heat up your kitchen in the middle of summer. Don’t get me wrong, I love making cooked jam, but freezer jam was made for strawberries, especially Hoods.
The only challenge with freezer jam is deciding which pectin to use. Linda Ziedrich, a local cookbook author and preserving specialist, has a great post on pectin. Depending on how it’s processed, commercial pectin can require gobs of sugar to gel. Pectins that don’t are often mixed with dextrose (a kind of sugar) and citric acid. Either way, these pectins make it tricky for cooks to control the sweetness and tartness of their jam.
Pomona’s Universal Pectin is different. You can use honey or skip the sugar altogether if you want, and add as much lemon juice as you desire. That’s because the box includes a little packet of powdered calcium (monocalcium phosphate), which is what helps the pectin gel. (Pomona’s can be hard to find in other cities, but not Portland. I’ve seen it all over town, including Mirador, New Seasons and Whole Foods)
I like to use raw honey instead of granulated sugar in my freezer jam. It’s unprocessed, locally produced, and each variety has a flavor all its own — a flavor that’s preserved because the honey doesn’t get cooked. In fact my favorite variety, meadowfoam, tastes like it’s been infused with vanilla.
I used that honey in a recent batch of post-berry-picking freezer jam, and enhanced its vanilla flavor with vanilla beans. The result was jam that tasted like dessert, so much so that we were inspired to turn it into one by layering it with whipped cream and crushed meringue cookies. Essentially an Eton Mess with jam instead of macerated berries, it was decadent, elegant and insanely delicious — and we threw it together in five minutes flat.
We can think of a lot more uses for this super-deluxe jam – swirl it into ice cream, mix it into drinks, spoon it onto cream biscuits. It could be the topping for cheesecake, the filling for a tart, or a reason to get up in the morning when smeared over buttery toast.
One thing it’s not? Likely to last long. In fact, our supply is already dwindling. Luckily, berry season in Oregon has only just begun.
Strawberry-Vanilla Freezer Jam
Makes about 6 cups
4 cups mashed strawberries (about 6 cups whole berries, green tops removed)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 cup honey (preferably Meadowfoam), or to taste
2 vanilla beans
¾ cup water
3 teaspoons Pomona’s Universal Pectin
4 teaspoons calcium water (prepared according to package directions)
In a large bowl, combine the mashed strawberries, lemon juice and honey. Split the vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the back of a knife. Add the seeds to the berries (and save the pods to tuck into a jar of sugar for vanilla sugar).
On the stove or in a microwave, heat the water until boiling. Pour into a food processor or blender and add the powdered pectin while the machine is running (you can also use a hand-held mixer). Continue processing until the pectin is thoroughly dissolved and not lumpy. Stir the dissolved pectin into the berries. Add the calcium water and stir. You will see the berry juice start to look gelled. If not, you can stir in a bit more calcium water. Taste and add more honey and lemon juice if desired.
Ladle the mixture into jars and freeze for up to 1 year. Thaw in the refrigerator. Keep refrigerated and use within two weeks.
Oregon-Style Eton Mess
Makes about 6 servings
With good freezer jam in hand, this dessert can be on the table in minutes. It’s a simple concept: flavorful creamy things mixed with light and crunchy bits. So play around: add lemon curd, mix mascarpone or creme fraiche into the whipped cream. Drizzle in a little chocolate sauce. Just don’t skimp on the cookie crumbs.
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons honey (preferably meadowfoam)
1 ½ cups crushed vanilla meringue cookies (about 5 cookies; 1½ ounces)
1 ½ cups Strawberry-Vanilla Freezer Jam
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the cream, vanilla and honey. Beat on medium-low until honey dissolves, then increase the speed to medium-high and beat until semi-firm peaks form.
Spoon about 1 heaping tablespoon whipped cream into the bottom of six small (6-ounce) glasses. (If your glasses are wide, you may need more. Just eyeball it.) Sprinkle with about a tablespoon of the crushed cookies followed by a tablespoon of the jam. Repeat the layering until the glasses are full, ending with a dollop of cream and a sprinkle of meringue crumbs. Serve immediately or within an hour to keep the cookie crumbs from getting soggy.