North Carolina used to be the king of tobacco. Now, strawberries are big business in the world of agriculture. And it’s not hard to understand why – not only are strawberries flat-out yummy, but they generate money, since they are a fruit favorite among shoppers and stay in demand. Could an even better-tasting berry be on the horizon? Possibly. A new initiative, the N.C. Strawberry Project, is uniting local culinary artists, farmers and scientists with the goal of breeding a better strawberry. The collaboration involves Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte and N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis. Together, teams are conducting tests with culinary students and faculty to see what they prefer in the taste, look and feel of their strawberry. And some time down the line, project members hope to grow a brand new berry that’s suited to the North Carolina climate – and to the consumer’s palette. Three members of the team talked about the project with Lake Norman Magazine: Dr. Jeremy Pattison, strawberry breeder and assistant professor at N.C. State, Chef Mark Allison, Dean of Culinary Education at JWU, and Leah Chester-Davis, a Lake Norman resident and director of communications at the institute in Kannapolis.
Q: What makes strawberries so special? Pattison: At $74 billion, agriculture is the number one industry in the state. When tobacco, once the king of crops, decreased in acreage by 86 percent from 1997 to 2007, it left many farmers looking for alternative enterprises. Strawberries are a high-value crop that can help support their livelihoods.
Q: North Carolina currently produces three types of strawberries. What makes each one unique? Will new types emerge as a result of this project? Pattison: While Camarosa and Sweet Charlie are typically larger berries, the Chandler strawberry is usually categorized as slightly smaller with a medium-large berry. While Chandlers are medium red, Camarosa and Sweet Charlies can be described as brilliant and deep red, respectively. It is the goal of the N.C. Strawberry Project to lead to a new variety of berry specifically bred for the North Carolina climate. This would mean a berry that could have a longer growing season, thus improving its impact on the state’s economy. The feedback that we receive from chefs, consumers and produce buyers will be implemented into my traditional breeding program as well so that we can produce a berry with the characteristics that they are looking for. Q: How will this project build mutual appreciation among culinary specialists, farmers and scientists? Allison: Although we rely heavily on each other, there is a lack of communication. Never have we gone to a farmer and told him or her that we would like a redder strawberry or a stronger onion. Pattison: It will give me, as the plant breeder, insight into what the culinary world looks for in a good strawberry.
Q: We all know about the wonderful world of chocolate and strawberries, but what is a unique combination that you have made that people are surprised they enjoy? Allison: One of the favorites that I have created is a fresh take on the traditional Caprese salad. Typically made with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and basil, I have livened it by replacing the tomatoes with fresh strawberries and creating a mint pesto glaze to accompany the balsamic vinegar. The mint works nicely with the strawberries and it is a lovely, light dish. Our first cook-off winner, Tyler Creech, put together a wonderful strawberry and shrimp ceviche, which I think is something that surprises many people. I was discussing an idea for strawberry soda bread with one of our pastry chefs.
Q: What are some of the benefits of buying local produce? Chester-Davis: By buying local produce, you are guaranteed to get the freshest product. Additionally, you are supporting your neighbors and local economy. In a time when the entire country is facing a tough economy, more of your food dollars stay in your community when you buy locally.
Q: Can you tell/taste the difference between a local strawberry and one from a big box store? Chester-Davis: Absolutely! There really is no comparison. Local berries are much more flavorful.
Strawberry Blonde Muffins From Johnson & Wales student Emily Towner for the N.C. Strawberry Project. Yields 10 muffins.
1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups fresh strawberries, divided ½ cup milk 1 egg 2 tablespoons honey 1 teaspoon vanilla ½ teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking powder ⅓ cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 cups all-purpose flour Preheat oven to 375°F. Using a food processor or blender, purée enough strawberries to make ¼ cup to ½ cup strawberries. Chop remaining strawberries (enough for 1 cup). In a small bowl, combine strawberry purée, milk, egg, honey and vanilla and lightly beat. In a large bowl, sift salt, baking powder, brown sugar, cinnamon and flour. Lightly toss the remaining 1 cup chopped strawberries in the flour mixture. Pour the milk mixture into the dry mixture and stir until just moistened. Fill muffin cups ¾ of the way. Bake at 375 degrees for 18-23 minutes (or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean). Let muffins cool for 5-10 minutes in pan. Strawberries and Mozzarella With Mint Pesto Drizzle From Chef Mark Allison, Dean of Culinary Education at Johnson & Wales University. Serves 6.
1 pound strawberries, sliced 1/8 cup sugar 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil 1/2 ounce mint leaves 1/4 cup almonds, sliced 1/8 cup Parmesan cheese 1/2 clove garlic 1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, 1/2 inch slices 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (1/2 teaspoon for each serving) In a bowl, combine strawberries and sugar. Cover and set aside. In a food processor, combine the olive oil, mint leaves, sliced almonds, Parmesan cheese and garlic. Divide the mozzarella and place the slices (overlapping) on each serving plate. Spoon 1/2 cup sugared strawberries around and on cheese. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar and 1 to 2 tablespoons of the mint pesto drizzle over cheese and strawberries on each plate. Garnish with mint leaves.
Sweet statistics from the North Carolina Strawberry Project In 2009: N.C. agriculture industry: $74 billion (#1 industry in N.C.) N.C. strawberry operations: 400 Production value: $20.8 million Pounds of berries: 19.5 million National ranking: 4th (following California, Florida and Oregon) Acres harvested: 1,500