It was one of those perfect California mornings along the coast: bright, crisp and breezy, the kind of day that starts a bit chilly but gives way to downright hot, sunny weather. The kind of day that invigorates you, letting you warm up with Mother Nature, not too fast, not too slow, but just right.
As it turns out, it's not just my idea of ideal weather but also the perfect environment for growing strawberries.
I was in Oxnard, about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, to meet Mike Ferro of Saticoy Berry Farms. Mike's family has been growing strawberries in this area for three generations, and knows just about everything one needs to know about these beloved berries. Mike has 325 acres of land and produces around 1,200,000 packages of fresh strawberries between January and May. After the fresh season the Ferros supply another bounty of berries for the cannery process, and it's these berries that make their way into commercial jams and preserves.
It's mind-boggling to realize that 83% of strawberries eaten in the United States are grown in California, and even more astonishing to realize that this fragile, short-lived berry is a $767 million dollar industry in California. Saticoy's strawberries are hand-picked and packaged in the field, cooled down quickly and then sent on their way domestically and internationally to locations like Canada, Mexico, and even Hong Kong. Quite a distance for this little berry!
Nearly 90% of his 325 acres are planted with the Camarosa variety berry, a variety that Mike believes tastes better and has a higher durability factor. Of course he could expand his acreage and grow an easier berry in order to make more money, but he believes in leaving that job to the big wigs. Being relatively small suits him just fine, and one bite of his Camarosa strawberry proves that he's right on track.Strawberry Panna CottaStrawberries don't last long. In fact, Mike Ferro joked with me that if someone finds a way to make them last longer than 7-10 days then he's out of the farming business as soon as possible! With that said, I believe they are best savored as simply as possible; their amazing strawberry-ness gets lost when buried under too many ingredients.
This panna cotta is about as easy as it gets. Top with strawberries that have been macerated in a bit of sugar and a good balsamic vinegar.Ingredients
3 cups sliced strawberries
1 3/4 cups low fat buttermilk
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milkMethod
1 . Blend buttermilk, sugar and sliced strawberries in a blender until well mixed. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl to remove the solids. Discard solids.
2. In a small bowl sprinkle the gelatin over the milk; let it stand for 1 minute.
3. In a small saucepan heat the heavy cream until it simmers, careful not to boil or overheat. Once heated, remove from heat and add milk & gelatin mixture and mix well until dissolved.
4. Whisk the cream mixture into the strawberry puree and pour into small ramekins. Cover and chill the molds in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
5. To serve, dip the molds in warm water for a few seconds to loosen the panna cotta; invert them onto plates and remove the ramekin. Top with sliced strawberries and enjoy. Serves six.