Strawberries are a sweet seasonal treat

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Strawberries are the luscious start to spring and summer's bounty of gorgeous, juicy fruit. Chefs greet their arrival with creative juices flowing.

"I'm not sure if there is a more luxurious fruit than a strawberry. Who can resist strawberries and champagne, strawberries and chocolate (or) strawberries and very vanilla whipped cream?" said chef Todd Richards of the Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

Hudson Rouse of Oakleaf Mennonite Farm off Bouldercrest Road in East Atlanta agrees, but he and his three children don't need chocolate or whipped cream to enjoy their strawberries.

"It doesn't have to be the prettiest strawberry in the bunch to be the sweetest. I eat the whole thing, crown and all, and if that one's not sweet enough, I just reach in and try another one," he said with a laugh.

Munching while you pick is a real occupational hazard when you're working with something that smells as wonderful as a warm strawberry. It's a good thing his farm has 1,000 strawberry plants, so there are a few berries left for the customers. Rouse takes his strawberries to East Atlanta Village Farmers Market on Thursdays, East Lake Farmers Market on Saturdays, Grant Park Farmers Market on Sundays and adds them to the boxes of the farm's community supported agriculture program.

Rouse's strawberries are all the "Chandler" variety. It's the same variety often grown at pick-your-own operations because the berries ripen continuously and require harvesting at least every other day. This works perfectly for a farm that sells its produce at market three days of the week. Rouse says he'll pick about 10 gallons of berries a week. Most will be sold fresh, although some will be turned into preserves for the farm's CSA customers.

In a commercial strawberry operation, the beds can be perennial because the soil is chemically treated to help the plants ward off disease.

"We don't use chemicals, and we plant our strawberries in a new spot every year. We pull up the plants and discard

them in June and then put out new strawberry plants in October in a different spot," Rouse said.

Rouse makes sure he gets out there early to pick the berries because left too long on the plant, the bugs will get them before he can.

"Not leaving them to get dead ripe makes them more suited for a dessert strawberry. They have a really nice tart complexity," he said.

When you get them home, sort through the berries and discard any that may be overripe, then store them with the caps on. Rinse just before ready to use.

Strawberries fresh from the farm will keep about a week in the refrigerator. Put them in a container like a colander that will allow air to circulate around the berries. Left on the counter they begin to soften quickly, but they're certainly convenient for easy snacking.

Ritz-Carlton Buckhead’s Strawberry Salad

Hands on: 15 minutes. Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling and freezing time. Serves: 2.

Created by Todd Richards, chef at the Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

2 cups water, divided

1 cup granulated sugar

12 medium strawberries, rinsed and stems removed

Zest of 1 lemon

4 large basil leaves, divided

1 cup balsamic vinegar

½ cup toasted salted peanuts

In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup water and sugar and bring to a simmer. Stir until sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and cool 30 minutes. Add strawberries, lemon zest and 3 basil leaves. Refrigerate 4 hours. Strain the strawberries from the syrup and refrigerate berries. Strain syrup to remove zest and basil.

Place half the sugar syrup in a small saucepan. Add balsamic vinegar and remaining cup of water. Bring to a simmer, remove from heat and cool. Pour mixture into a freezer-proof container and freeze for at least 4 hours. Reserve the remaining sugar syrup for other uses . Strawberries and ice can be prepared up to 2 days ahead.

When ready to serve, cut reserved strawberries in half and place them in a serving bowl. Roll remaining basil leaf like a cigar and slice into thin ribbons. Sprinkle slices of basil over strawberries. Remove frozen balsamic mixture from freezer and use a fork to scrape mixture into fine pieces. Arrange ice over sliced strawberries, garnish with peanuts and serve immediately.

Notes: Richards finds that using medium strawberries instead of large ones gives the syrup a more concentrated flavor.

The remaining strawberry-lemon-basil syrup would make a great base for a cocktail or mocktail.

Per serving: 449 calories (percent of calories from fat, 34), 9 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 18 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 299 milligrams sodium.