Strawberry festival begins this weekend

June 11, 2010 (CHICAGO)

"We're going gung-ho for those four weeks. There are not many nights of sleep," said Rodney Johnson, Johnson Strawberry Farm.

Part of the challenge for growers is the weather in this corner of the state.

"Every year is different, some years we're fighting 100 degree weather and this year we're fighting a ran storm every other day," said Johnson.

Inside the bakery, those red beauties are transformed: either combined with a sugar/water/cornstarch gel for fresh pies.. or just macerated with sugar and combined with biscuits and whipped cream for a simple, honest shortcake. Baked in the oven, they release their juices for a one-of-a-kind pie. Johnson says it's all thanks to the straw, which keeps those berries intact during the harsh winters.

"The straw insulates the ground. It keeps it from real extreme temperature changes. The strawberry would go dormant in early…right before winter and as long as they don't the temperature doesn't drop to drastically they are perennial, they'll come back next year," said Johnson.

Ukrainian Village, breakfast and lunch-friendly Jam has recently opened for dinner, which means strawberries on both the sweet and savory side of the menu.

"They're awesome, they're versatile to use, whether they're sweet, savory. Their uses are unlimited. That goes for a number of spring ingredients but strawberries are pretty amazing," said Jeff Mauro, Jam.

Mauro might fry up a Scotch egg, place it on a sour cream waffle surrounded by sliced strawberries and frisee greens.

"It's kind of on the fatty side, where you have the runny egg yolk and then you have the cotechino sausage wrapped in there and that waffle just kinds of soaks all that up; but then there is this heavy fat content, you need a little bit of that sweet, that acid to break through that," said Mauro.

Mauro's pastry chef has her own riff on the classic dessert: mini-buckwheat shortcakes layered with strawberry conserve, plus creme fraiche, rhubarb curd and fresh basil.

"I think that when you compose these dishes you can still make them really 'sexy' with something as simple and beautiful as strawberries," said Mauro.

The Johnson Farm's strawberry madness kicks off at 8 a.m., Saturday, June 12. You can pick them yourself, or just pick them up in the front store to go.

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