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Penelope Tinney searches for ripe strawberries.

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Bounty of Berries: Pick-your-own strawberries are both tasty and educational

Freshest picks

The following farms offer pick-your-own and/or freshly picked from the field:

› Tidwell’s Berries. Located on Highway 27, 17 miles north of Dayton, Tenn., and four miles south of Spring City. Call 423-365-9300 for daily updates on hours and availability.

› LCCL Strawberry Farm, 3743 Old Dalton Road, Rome, Ga. 706-295-2587. lcclstrawberryfarm.com.

› Sims Farm, 1608 Burning Bush Road, Ringgold. 706-866-4062. simsfamilyfarm.com.

Berry-good tips

Don’t wash them … at least not until you are ready to eat them. They will get mushy.

Keep them under wraps. Place the strawberries in a thin layer on a plate or bowl, cover and chill.

Put them on ice. Hull them using a strong straw and put them in a freezer storage bag.

— Tara McAlister, The Charlotte Observer

Coming up

Fresh strawberries will be in abundance Sunday at Chattanooga Market for the EPB Strawberry Festival. Along with fresh strawberries, vendors will offer strawberry-infused foods such as Miller’s Strawberry Lemonade, fresh strawberry salsa from Daylillies, berry-blend granola from Nokes Granola, desserts from Bitler’s Bistro and strawberry breads and other baked treats from Simply Southern Bakery. Chattanooga Market is held at the First Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Carter St., from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Two-year-old Reed Mull pushes back the leaves of a strawberry plant, peering beneath its healthy, bright green foliage.

"Look, here's another one," he says excitedly.

His diminutive frame is the perfect height for reaching down to pluck the juicy red berry from its stem; his small hand, though, doesn't yet have quite the dexterity to pull it free. With help from Mom Dana, he picks it and adds it to his berry basket.

Pick-your-own strawberry farms offer fun, family time for the Mulls and other moms, dads and kids. On a sunny afternoon at Sims Family Farm in Ringgold, Ga., children are getting an education while having a good time.

"This day and time, it's so easy to get caught up in grabbing things at the grocery store and tossing them in your basket without thinking about it," Dana Mull says of the pick-your-own experience.. It's good for my children to see how foods are grown. They can learn about it this way."

The Sims family farm began as a dairy farm with 500 head of cattle grazing its pasturelands and fertilizing the soil along the way. But, owner Bernard Sims says, as the growing population of North Georgia encroached upon his land and more homes were built, neighbors didn't appreciate the cattle enterprise. So Sims sold the dairy equipment and entered the sod business, adding strawberries to the mix a couple of years ago. The soil couldn't have been more perfect — thanks to those cows.

The Sims offer ready-picked berries, but the you-pick experience offers lessons on how our food is raised and what it feels like to be a part of the process, Sims says. It's about tracing our food source from farm to fork.

"Americans are three to four generations away from the farm," Sims says. "People just don't know where their food comes from anymore."

Tammy Algood, marketing specialist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, says there's a trend in place that's helping area farmers.

"More and more consumers want to know the source of their food," she says, "so this becomes the most important reason to make the drive to the producer.

"After being indoors for several months over the winter, consumers are ready to head outside and, within just a few minutes, you've got a bucket filled with fresh fruit — if you can resist nibbling on them right there in the field," Algood says. "By utilizing you-pick customers to glean the field, the farmer doesn't have to pay someone to harvest. So the price is more reasonable and the product fresher."

And local berries have a longer shelf life than those shipped in from other areas, Algood says.

Down the road in Rome, Ga., at LCCL Strawberry Farm, the season is off to a good start.

"The berries are wonderful this year," says employee Moni Owen. The farm offers just one variety of strawberry — Chandler — and there are plenty to pick, Owen adds.

"We have a great clientele who come back every year and new people, too," she says. "It's a fun, family oriented activity."

The Sims plant three varieties of strawberries to ensure a season that should last through the first week of June, Sims says. Sweet Charlies, the sweetest of all, come in first, followed by Camarosa and Chandler.

To keep strawberries fresh longer, proper storage includes refrigerating the berries as soon as you get home. To avoid crushing them, store them in shallow containers. And do not wash them in advance, wait until you're ready to eat.

Here are some of the Sims family's favorite recipes for celebrating strawberry season.

Chocolate Strawberry Oasis Pie

Crust

Nonstick vegetable oil spray

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

1 ounce bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

7 ounces chocolate wafer cookies (about 30 cookies)

1 pint strawberries, trimmed and halved

Filling

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

2 1/2 cups whole milk

6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 tablespoon bourbon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lightly spray a 9-inch pie dish with nonstick spray. Place the butter and chopped chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl, heat on high for 30 seconds or until just melted. Stir until smooth. Finely grind cookies in food processor. Add chocolate mixture and process until crumbs are evenly moistened. Press crumb mixture into prepared pie dish. Freeze until firm, about 30 minutes. Arrange strawberry halves in a single layer in the bottom of the crust.

For the filling, whisk sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, spices and salt in heavy saucepan to combine. Whisk in egg yolks to form thick paste. Gradually whisk in milk, then whisk over medium-high heat until mixture thickens and boils 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Add chocolate and whisk until smooth. Whisk in bourbon and vanilla. Cool 5 minutes, whisking occasionally. Pour filling over strawberries until level with the top edge of the crust (you may not use all the filling). Chill until set, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day. Top with fresh whipped cream and more strawberries, if desired.

Strawberry Banana Bread

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

3 ripe bananas, mashed

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries chopped and tossed in 1 tablespoon of flour

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray one 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or two miniature loaf pans with nonstick spray. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric or stand mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

In a small bowl, beat eggs using a fork. Add eggs to sugar mixture and beat until combined. Add mashed bananas and mix until combined.

Sift all dry ingredients: flour, baking soda and salt. Slowly add sifted dry ingredients to banana mixture and mix until flour is just combined. Do not overmix. Fold in floured covered strawberries.

Pour batter into prepared loaf pans and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 30 minutes until edges are slightly brown or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Let cool completely before removing from loaf pans.

Strawberry Lemonade

2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled and halved

3 cups sugar, divided

2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (8-10) lemons

In blender or food processor, puree strawberries with 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water.

In large container, mix together 11 cups of water and remaining 2 cups sugar, lemon juice and strawberry mixture. Stir and taste, adding more sugar if needed.

Strawberry Pretzel Dessert

2 cups crushed pretzels

3/4 cup butter

3 tablespoons sugar

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1 (8-ounce) container whipped topping, thawed

2 (3-ounce) packages strawberry gelatin

2 cups boiling water

2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled, sliced and frozen

Heat oven to 400 degrees

Stir together crushed pretzels, butter and 3 tablespoons sugar. Mix well and press into bottom of 9-by-13-inch dish. Bake 8-10 minutes and cool.

Stir cream cheese and 1 cup of sugar together. Fold in whipped topping. Spread over cooled crust.

Dissolve gelatin in water. Stir in frozen strawberries. When about the consistency of egg whites, pour over topping. Chill until set. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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