Strawberry Seduction

Sucker-punched again: Those suspiciously large, carmine strawberries show up in the grocery store in April and I, with the taste of summer just out of reach in the back of my memory, am vulnerable.

The berries prove to be pale, woody and disappointing – but I have only myself to blame because I know I should have waited.

Lucky for you, Chef J.P. Samuelson of JP American Bistro, 2937 Lyndale Ave. S., knows how to wait. Waiting is what you do when you make a real go of seasonal, local cooking. (Are you sick of the “seasonal/local” mantra yet? I’m not, but I am afraid it’s losing its meaning. Say “banana” a dozen times out loud. Same thing.)

When the first real strawberries appear in June, Samuelson goes to town, churning through two or three dozen pints a week in his kitchen. He turns many of those berries into fruit crisps: on their own with a coconut streusel topping, or mixed with rhubarb and a little ginger.

But he doesn’t stop at dessert. You might find strawberries in the daily cocktail at the bar, or on the appetizer menu, in a chutney made with apples and balsamic vinegar and served with blue cheese and flatbread. Berries might show up next to an entre, pureed into a smooth sauce with a habaero kick.

Samuelson gets his strawberries – at least in the midseason – from Lorence’s Berry Farm in Northfield. And he doesn’t stint on the praise.

“They really are amazing,” he says. “Sometimes they come and they’re just dripping with sugar. The lend themselves, because they’re so floral and so fresh, to savory applications as well.”

The Lorences have been growing strawberries on the farm since 1978 and now have more than 20 acres of strawberries, in addition to raspberry and asparagus operations run by their son. Twin Citians can taste their berries at restaurants like JP American Bistro, at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, or – as thousands of people do every day – by driving down to pick their own.

Living on a strawberry farm, Susie Lorence understands the heightened pleasure that comes from waiting.

“People ask, ‘Well, don’t you ever get tired of eating them?’ and you actually never do. The season is too short,” she says.

Samuelson learned from his farm-wife grandmother how to cheat time and extend that season.

“When it’s a good season, we’ll buy a lot [of strawberries] and preserve them … we’ll make purees and freeze them,” he says. “It’s such a hint of summer later on.”

A hint of summer I know I’ll never find in a plastic box in April.