It’s that glorious time of year, when everywhere you go in central Virginia you will see buckets and bushels of succulent, ripe, juicy strawberries. Through the miracles of modern agriculture, as well as improved storage and transportation technology, it is now possible to buy fresh strawberries year ‘round, but they simply can’t compare to the just-picked freshness of the local crop. In fact, if you have the time and stamina, there are many opportunities to pick your own berrie at several area farms.

A naturally sweet, low-cal fruit that is rich in vitamins A and C, strawberries taste good when just eaten out of the container. But, of course, they can also be enjoyed in a multitude of ways. Since the local berry season is relatively short, make the most of it with some of the suggestions offered below.

RICH STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
Shortcake—a biscuit-like cake—topped with fresh berries and whipped cream is an all-time favorite that never goes out of style.

2 cups sifted flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 egg, beaten
½ cup light cream or half and half
Melted butter
1 cup whipping cream
4 cups sweetened sliced strawberries

For the shortcake, combine the first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Combine the egg with the light cream, and add to the flour mixture, stirring only until the flour is dampened and the dough stiffens. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 20 times, or until dough is cohesive and manageable. Form into a circle about 8 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly brown. Immediately remove from the cookie sheet, and cool slightly on a wire rack. While the shortcake is still lukewarm, slice in half horizontally with a serrated knife, and brush the cut side of the bottom half with melted butter. In a medium bowl, whip the cream until stiff. To assemble the shortcake, place the shortcake on a deep serving plate, and spoon half the berries over the bottom of the shortcake. Top with about one-third of the whipped cream. Place top half of shortcake over whipped cream, and cover with the remaining berries and whipped cream. If desired, garnish with a few whole berries. Serves 6-8.

STRAWBERRY LEMON CREAM PIE
Prepared lemon curd (usually available in the specialty foods section of any market) makes this light and luscious pie a snap to prepare. To save even more time, buy a ready-made pie crust and bake according to package directions.

1 9-inch pastry crust, baked and cooled
3 tablespoons strawberry jelly, melted and cooled
1 cup whipping cream
¾ cup bottled lemon curd
3 cups whole strawberries, washed, hulled and dried

Brush the bottom of the baked crust with a little of the melted jelly (save remainder for glaze), and refrigerate the crust for 10 minutes to set. In a medium bowl, whip the cream until stiff. Carefully fold in the lemon curd until well blended and spoon into chilled crust. Arrange the berries, hulled sides down, on top of the filling, and brush with the remaining jelly. If not serving right away, place in refrigerator. Serves 6 to 8.

STRAWBERRY BREAD
This healthy, low-fat quick bread provides a great way to utilize over-ripe berries.

1 egg
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup canola oil
1 cup pureed fresh strawberries
1 ¾ cups + 1 tablespoon sifted whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons slivered almonds

In a medium bowl, beat egg and egg whites lightly with a wire whisk. With a wooden spoon, stir in the next 4 ingredients. Sift together the next 4 ingredients, and stir into strawberry mixture just until smooth. Spoon the batter into spray-coated 8-by-4-inch loaf pan, and sprinkle almonds on top. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the loaf tests done. Cool in its pan on a wire rack. The invert the loaf onto the rack to cool completely. Wrap in foil and refrigerate several hours for easier slicing. Serves 8 to 10.

STRAWBERRY SWEETHEART TARTS
Cooks are constantly coming up with interesting new ways to include Oreo cookies in dessert recipes, including this kid-pleasing selection.

26 Oreo cookies
1/3 cup melted butter
1 quart (about 3 ½ cups) strawberries, washed and hulled
½ cup water, divided
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ cup whipping cream

Crush the Oreos, using a food processor or a rolling pin. (It is not necessary to remove the crème centers unless you want to.) Combine with the melted butter and press about 2 tablespoons of crumb mixture into the bottom of 12 paper-lined muffin tins. Place in refrigerator. Set aside 12 of the prettiest berries for garnish. Slice the remaining berries, and set aside 1 cup. Divide the remaining sliced berries among the 12 muffin tins. In a small saucepan, combine the reserved 1 cup of sliced berries with ¼ cup water and bring to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Blend the remaining water with the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice and add this to the saucepan. Boil for 1 minute, or until thickened and clear. Let cool slightly, and then spoon over the berries in each tart shell. Chill for 1 hour. Just before serving, whip the cream until stiff. Remove the paper liners, and top each tart with a dollop of whipped cream and a whole berry. Serves 8 to 12.

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