By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — In their quest to breed a better strawberry, scientists at the N.C. Research Campus are turning to the chefs of tomorrow.
More than 30 culinary students from Johnson & Wales University visited the Piedmont Research Station Friday as part of the N.C. Strawberry Project.
They toured a greenhouse and high tunnels where Dr. Jeremy Pattison and other N.C. State University researchers are dedicating the better part of a decade to creating a strawberry variety custom-made for North Carolina.
The project works to convince culinary students that locally grown strawberries and other produce are tastier, healthier and worth the sometimes higher price tag.
Zach Weikle was already on board with the local-food movement before he stepped off the bus and into the mud at the Research Station.
“It just tastes better,” said Weikle of Concord.
When he has a restaurant, Weikle said he plans to design daily specials around locally available fruits and veggies and alter his menus with the changing seasons.
“Building a relationship with local producers will give these students a competitive edge when they graduate,” Pattison said.
The N.C. Strawberry Project aims to connect chefs with farmers, ultimately boosting the state’s economy. Project coordinators believe strawberry sales will grow from $20.8 million to $26 million annually as a result of the project.
“We want to get (the students) exposed to local agriculture and help them understand the importance of it,” said Pattison, who is coordinating the project with Dr. James Oblinger and Leah Chester Davis.
The project creates a partnership between N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the Research Campus and Johnson & Wales in Charlotte.
While farmers, researchers and chefs have teamed up in the past, those partnerships have primarily centered on agritourism.
This project has researchers working with growers across the state to identify production needs and develop a strawberry plant that will thrive in North Carolina’s soil and climate while satisfying chefs and other consumers.
Some Johnson & Wales students and faculty, along with consumers, will test strawberries in May at Sensory Spectrum at the Research Campus.
They will give feedback based on the color, flavor, texture and size of strawberries. Researchers will implement the results into the breeding program.
Pattison, the state’s first dedicated strawberry breeder, and others hope to lengthen the strawberry season in North Carolina by several months. They also are breeding for better flavor, yield and disease resistance.
Friday’s field trip, which included a stop at Barbee Farms in Concord, was part of Johnson & Wales’ effort to teach students the importance of local food, Dr. Robert Brener said.
“This generation is completely disconnected from where their food comes from,” he said.
Local food not only tastes better and packs a bigger nutritional punch, but it’s more socially responsible, he said.
Culinary students need to understand the harvesting process and why local strawberries and other produce sometimes cost more, Dr. Mary Etta Moorachian said.
Customers may complain about prices in their restaurants, so these future chefs must educate them about the health benefits of eating locally grown food, she said.
“Chefs could be the food pharmacists of the future,” Moorachian said.
N.C. strawberry stats (2009)
Production value: $20.8 million
Pounds of berries: 19.5 million
National ranking: 4th (behind Calif., Fla. and Ore.)
Acres harvested: 1,500
N.C. strawberry operations: 400
Source: N.C. Strawberry Project
Did you know?
Antioxidants — help reduce the chance of heart disease and cancer
Fiber — lowers the risk of heart disease and supports digestion
Phytonutrients — aids in the prevention of cancer and diabetes
Potassium — helps maintain blood pressure and aids muscle contraction
Vitamin C — promotes healthy gums, teeth and bones
Source: www.theproducelady.org, a program of N.C. Cooperative Extension
Strawberry caprese salad
Yield: 6 servings
1 lb. local strawberries, sliced
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. mint leaves
1/4 cup almonds, sliced
1/8 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 clove garlic
1 lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, 1/2-inch slices
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar (1/2 tsp. for each serving)
In a bowl, combine strawberries and sugar. Cover and set aside.
Mint pesto drizzle: 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.
1/2 cup olive oil
24 slices French baguette
Fresh mint leaves
1/2 lb. mozzarella cheese, sliced
2 cups local strawberries, chopped
1/4 cup white sugar, or as needed
Preheat oven’s broiler. Brush a thin layer of olive oil on each slice of bread. Arrange bread slices in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
Place bread under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes; turn over and continue cooking until lightly toasted on both sides. Place one mint leaf on each piece of toast, followed by a slice of mozzarella; spoon some chopped strawberries over the cheese and sprinkle sugar over the strawberries.
Place under the broiler again until sugar is caramelized, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve, garnished with fresh mint leaves.
Tangy strawberries & shrimp
Yield: 4 servings
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 Tbsp. organic honey
2 tsp. nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
Juice of 2 limes
2 Thai red chilies, finely diced
6 oz. cooked and shelled shrimp
1/3 cup unsalted roasted almonds, lightly chopped
2 cups strawberries, cut into quarters
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 tbsp. chopped mint leaves
In a large bowl, combine the garlic, honey, nam pla, lemon zest, lime juice zest and chilies.
Fold in the shrimp and almonds, add the strawberries and stir to combine. Sprinkle and stir in chopped cilantro and mint, serve.
— Chef Mark Allison, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University