Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Strawberries: not just good, but good for you!

Summertime is strawberry time, and I am enjoying it to the full. For I have discovered that the best strawberries don’t come from the supermarket, but from a local farm not three miles from my home.

In the past, strawberry season was an exercise in frustration. Keen to avoid the early berries from Spain (grown in hothouses, tended by underpaid African migrant laborers, sprayed with pesticides and harvested before maturity) I would wait impatiently for the local berries to appear on the supermarket shelves. However, the season being short and hostage to the vagaries of the local weather, the long-awaited berries rarely made it to my supermarket, or only brioefly and at exhorbitant prices. Before I knew it, strawberry season was over and my plans for a freezer full of pureed strawberries had to be shelved until the following year.

A few weeks ago, as I was selecting beautifully fragrant strawberries at the local farmers’ market, the enterprising young grower selling them told me I could come and pick them myself – at half the price he was charging at the market! My family and I went for a short drive to the strawberry farm and as we got out of our car, a beauteous scene unfolded before our eyes: row after row of ruby-red, ripe strawberries glistening in the afternoon sun.

We were handed two wooden crates and set about filling them in the company of the friendly farm dog. Within ½ hour we had picked 8 kilograms of sweet, aromatic mara des bois strawberries, probably the most fragrant of all strawberry varieties, with a flavor resembling the sweet, spicy miniature forest berries you sometimes discover on particularly successful country walks. (They remind us why the Italian name for strawberry is fragola – essentially meaning ‘fragrant.’)

Best of all, the berries had not been treated with any chemicals; to rein in the weeds, the farmer had covered much of his field with black plastic sheeting into which he had cut holes for the strawberry bushes to grow through.

Strawberries are the very incarnation of nutrient-dense food: low in calories (1 cup only contains 43 calories) and brimming with nutrients. Eating just 10 medium-sized strawberries (1 cup or 140 grams) gives you 82 mg of vitamin C – or 136% of the recommended daily average! Strawberries are also rich sources of fiber, potassium, manganese and folic acid.

Strawberries (and other berries, such as raspberries, blueberries, cranberries and blackberries) are also one of our staunchest allies for dietary cancer prevention. A large body of research has established the anti-cancer potential of berry fruit phytochemicals. These include anthocyanins (pigments that impart the attractive colors to berry fruits and colorful vegetables), quercetin (a compound also found in onions, apple skins and tea), proanthocyanidins (common to green tea, grape skin and seeds, blueberries, cranberries, dark chocolate, etc.), tannins (particularly ellagitannins, found in strawberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes, some nuts and oak-aged beverages) and other plant chemicals.

Their cancer-protective effects are multiple: berries contain powerful antioxidants (notably ellagic acid, particularly prevalent in strawberries and raspberries) that protect our cells from free-radical attacks which can lead to cancerous changes. Berry compounds have been shown in laboratory experiments to inhibit cancer cell proliferation and to promote the detoxification of carcinogens. They can even induce apoptosis (cell death when a cell is no longer needed) and reinforce the cancer-destroying effects of certain chemotherapy drugs.

Interestingly, organically grown strawberries appear to have stronger anti-cancer effects than conventionally grown ones. Swedish scientists recently found that extracts of organic strawberries contained higher levels of vitamin C and phenolic compounds than their conventional cousins. Tested on human colon cancer and breast cancer cells, both types of strawberry extract  reduced cell growth,  but the organically grown ones were more effective at inhibiting proliferation than the conventionally grown ones.

If you can’t obtain organically grown strawberries but have a garden (even a small one will do), strawberries are easy to grow, even for beginners, and are very rewarding. Not only can they carry up to three flushes of fruit throughout the summer, but they are also perennial, meaning that they  flower and carry fruit every year, year after year. They reproduce by producing runners with nodes along them that are the beginning of new strawberry plants, so if you take good care of your strawberries and feed them and trim them when appropriate, they will reward you generously. Detailed information on planting and caring for strawberries can be found here.

So let’s enjoy strawberries while the season lasts! Most often I eat them as they come off the bush, or perhaps cut into creamy ewes’ milk yogurt along with a finely chopped mint leaf and a smidgen of acacia honey. Strawberries elevate any morning smoothie to a feast (I usually add banana and a spoonful of almond butter to make it more filling), as well as lending a lovely burst of color and freshness to porridge or muesli in the morning. To make the season last a little longer, I also puree them and freeze them in ice-cube trays or containers, to enjoy when fresh strawberries have become a distant dream.

To ring in the changes, I recently came up with a savory strawberry sauce that’s delicious with chicken or duck; if you would like to try it, I have posted it on my website.