According to Nikki Rothwell at the Michigan State University Extension, northern Michigan tart and sweet cherries are beginning to show some color, but our strawberry harvest is in full swing.

“We received some much-needed rain,‘ Rotyhwell stated, “but not as much as we could use. Strawberry harvest began over (last) weekend, and northwest Michigan is harvesting strawberries at the same time as southwest Michigan. Strawberry flavor is excellent with the dry conditions although the berries might be small from the lack of rainfall. Anecdotally, strawberry sales appear to be going well as demand is high.‘

With strawberries coming to market — yippie! — I am reminded of how often my parents used to stress the importance of nutrition and how it determines your overall health and weight. Why do strawberries remind me of nutrition? Because strawberries, in addition to being super flavorful and delicious, are quite nutrient-dense, too.

Among the most popular berries in the world, recent studies on strawberries are showing health benefits, and weight loss benefits, that should prompt us to start eating even more.

A study by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health found that eating anthocyanin-rich foods like strawberries was associated with a significant, 32 percent lower risk of heart attack in women in their mid-40s to age 60.

Research has also shown that strawberries can lower our risk of developing Parkinson’s disease as well because these berries protect cells from oxidative damage, and offer an anti-inflammatory effect.

Additional scientific studies are showing that strawberries may help us fight against cancer, aging, inflammation and other neurological diseases, too, and they offer us an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and other nutrients like A, C, E and B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene, potassium, manganese, copper, iron, iodine and more.

A pleasant surprise is that with all its delicious flavor and nutrition, strawberries also happen to be a low-calorie food, which makes them perfect, especially for kids, to eat instead of those sugary, empty-nutrition candies or sweets.

When selecting strawberries (which are their freshest-best when picked at a local U-pick location), look for berries that feature shiny, firm, deep red skin with attached green caps that are free of both sand and mold.

Since strawberries cease ripening after picking, do not select any with green or yellow patches on their surface because they are underripe and will very likely be sour-tasting.

Strawberries are very perishable, so gather only what you will use/process within a few days’ time.

That said, be sure to wait to clean strawberries just before use, by swishing them in cold, lightly-salted water (to kill bugs) then rinse with clean water and gently pat dry.

Remove stems and caps by simply pinching off with fingers or use a paring knife.

Today, strawberries grow across the world, enabling year-round availability. However, right now is the only time of year that you can pick up some fresh, northern Michigan-grown strawberries at your local stand.

Super sweet and refreshing, and good for us too, here now are some simple ways to add in that much-needed nutrition our parents warned us about, but in ways that make it oh-so-pleasurable to do. Enjoy.

Sources: circ.ahajournals.org; www.neurology.org

Area strawberry farms (in alphabetical order):

• Calvin Lutz Farms: 8576 Chief Road, Kaleva, MI.; (231) 889-5594; calvinlutzfarms.com

• Grossnickle Farms: 9918 Healy Lake Road, Kaleva, MI.; (231) 362-3796; grossnicklefarms.com

• The In Laws Farms/Many Blessings: 9850 W Finkle Road, McBain, MI.; 231-920-9357

• Urka Farms: 16919 Pole Road, Brethren, MI. ;(231) 477-5537; urkafarms.com

Strawberry Fields Salad

16 ounces spinach

1-pint strawberries, sliced

1/2 cup almonds or pecans, toasted

DRESSING

1/2 cup Pomegranate red wine vinegar

1/3 cup sugar or sugar substitute

1/3 cup safflower or grape seed oil

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

Toast pecans over low heat, set aside to cool. Combine dressing ingredients and shake well. Toss and garnish with a few sliced strawberries. Serve immediately.

Approximate servings per recipe: 8

Special Strawberry-Pretzel Dessert

2 cups crushed pretzels

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

3 tablespoons cane sugar

8 ounces Neufchatel cheese

1 cup cane sugar

8 ounces frozen whipped topping, thawed

6 ounces strawberry flavored gelatin

1 cup boiling water

1 cup ice water

20 ounces strawberries, washed, sliced, and chilled

To make crust, preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine crushed pretzels, melted butter and 3 tablespoons sugar. Mix well then press into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until set. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

To make topping and filling, dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Stir in ice water and chilled, sliced strawberries. Set in refrigerator on lowest shelf. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, cream together cheese and sugar then, by hand, fold in whipped topping. Spread this mixture onto cooled crust and then spread strawberry mixture evenly over the cheese layer. Refrigerate until set — about 4 hours in coldest part of refrigerator.

Approximate servings per recipe: 24.

Basil Strawberry Cream Cheese Dip

1 1/2 cups frozen whole strawberries, thawed and mashed

2 tablespoons sugar, or sub

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

8 ounces Neufchatel, or cream cheese

1/4 cup fresh basil, cut into ribbons

In a bowl, combine the frozen strawberries, sugar, and balsamic vinegar in a medium bowl. After the strawberries have thawed, mash ingredients together.

Remove the cream cheese from the package and place on a serving plate. Slowly spoon the berry mixture over the cream cheese. Sprinkle with basil. I like to use a lot of basil!

Serve with water crackers, or your favorite. Store in the refrigerator.

Approximate servings per recipe: 24.