Growing up in western New York, summertime was the time of year we all waited for with eager anticipation. The snow was gone, the days were sunny and long, and fresh fruits and veggies arrived at the produce stands.

My Italian grandfather was an ace gardener and continued gardening well into his 80's. He provided fresh vegetables and fruits for his family as well as for his neighbors. This tradition was not passed along to my father - I would hazard to guess that it would have been considered a step backwards if my father had carried on the tradition, since he was a first generation college graduate, encouraged to use his mind rather than labor with his hands.  I find it interesting the double standard though - my mother, of Irish ancestry, was a second generation college graduate, so it was acceptable for her, on bended knee, to enjoy flower and herb gardening. Go figure!

As a family we were frequent visitors to the produce stands, especially the roadside stands. My dad was a master scout when it came to finding which stands had the sweetest NY-grown corn, and my mom had eagle eyes for spotting the reddest and sweetest strawberries from a half mile away. And of course, there were the annual treks to the u-pick berry patches with strawberries being the first of the season. (Many places offered to hire my sister and I to chase away the birds with our screams each time we saw a spider!)  With six children, we were tasked with picking enough berries to fill our chest freezer to carry us through the winter months. We had strict orders to only eat one for every ten picked. 

These childhood memories and traditions I treasure and carry with me to this day. The tests of endurance, the character building and the rights of passage that came with picking berries was a tradition I knew, at an early age, was definitely something I wanted to pass along to my children.

When our two daughters reached the age of responsible picking (7 or 8), I decided to carry on the tradition. For the first couple years they were good sports about it. When the beauty of puberty arrived, things became a bit more challenging and more cajoling (ok, yes, bribery) was necessary.

The final (and you'll soon understand why) group strawberry outing included three 14 year olds girls, one 12 year old girl and me. We decided to go after school on one of the last 1/2 days of the school year. We were lucky to have a clear and sunny day, forecasted for a high of 80. However the thermometer spiked to 92 and not a cloud arrived to offer any relief from the hot still steamy air. Everyone's spirits were wound up for a fun adventure as we walked into the u-pick strawberry patch. As we got to work finding the ripest and plumpest of the berries, there was a quiet stillness with perfect work ethic…..for about 11 minutes. At which time teen girl #1 started scratching at her knees upon which she was kneeling (I'm allergic to straw! Nobody told me there would be straw here!"); girl #2 found our first spider (with an Olympic worthy scream); teen girl #3 began scratching where she had sat instead of knelt; and girl #4 (in an effort to not be left out) began counting aloud the number of bees hovering around us, just waiting to dive bomb and/or sting us. To compare this to an alley full of unhappy cats would be an understatement.

I had to make a split-second decision to stand my ground and not be deterred by my co-pickers! I announced that we could leave once we had picked four pints each. This motivator worked, because within 15 minutes more we were done and out of there.

We proudly delivered each girl to their homes with their fair share of strawberries. We had picked a total of 24 pints, so each family had 8 pints of strawberries. We agreed that we all felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. One friend’s mother arrived home as we put the last pint of strawberries on her countertop. Her first words were, “Oh My God! What the h#@* do you expect me to do with all these @#$%^&* berries?!”  I replied, “Well, I am happy to give you a bunch of recipes that you can use for all these beautiful berries.” That is what I said, indeed, not what I was thinking she could do with all those berries.

So, in the spirit of Strawberry Season, I offer the following recipes for your enjoyment.

Strawberry and Cucumber Salad

4 cups Fresh Strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered

2 English (seedless) Cucumbers, washed and thinly sliced

Dressing

1 cup Strawberries, (6 large berries), rinsed, hulled and sliced

1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 packets Stevia sweetener

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Place first 5 ingredients in a food processor or blender and run until smooth.  While still blending, slowly drizzle in olive oil until an emulsion forms.