It’s summer, and berry season is upon us. Whether you head to a farmers’ market for your berry supply or grow your own (for ideas, see Deb Gelet’s article on growing high-mountain berries, p. 74), now is the time to enjoy them. Berries out of season are not worth the many dollars they cost. Watery and almost flavorless, they bear little resemblance to the fresh, locally grown versions that are available all summer.
Full of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, fresh berries offer multiple health benefits. Although they contain very few calories, six strawberries will fulfill your minimum vitamin C requirement for the day, and one cup of raspberries will satisfy a third of your daily fiber requirement. According to the USDA, a natural component of blueberries has been shown to help reverse the memory loss associated with aging. And in Sweden, dried blueberries are used to treat childhood intestinal infections (the anthocyanoside complex found in blueberries is believed to have antibacterial properties).
To reap the greatest health benefits from berries, buy only those that were grown organically. The fragile skin of a berry is incapable of blocking out pesticides, so no matter how well you wash them, you will not be able to remove the residue of any chemicals that were applied. Strawberries in particular are vulnerable, because of the permeability of their skin and the amount of pesticide and fungicide required to protect them.
Berries should be stored at room temperature if they are to be eaten soon, as their flavor is best that way. If they are to be kept overnight, refrigerate them in a loosely closed brown paper bag, and be sure to give them time to return to room temperature before serving. Do not wash berries until just before you use them, or the water will turn their tender flesh to mush.
Berries are best eaten fresh, perhaps with a little cream—or even crème anglaise, if you feel like gilding the lily. Try some in a smoothie with yogurt and honey. For variety, mash fresh berries and mix them with a little oil and some balsamic vinegar for salad dressing, or to use as a marinade for poultry. Freeze mashed berries in fruit juice to make popsicles, or drop a few in a glass of champagne for a special celebration.
When you have eaten all the fresh berries you can manage, other prospects open up before you. In France, fruit tarts showcase perfect berries resting on pillows of pastry cream, shining with a glaze of currant jelly. Berries star in muffins, pies, cobblers, and crisps. Berry soufflés, both cold and hot, grace the tables of fancy restaurants. Berry sorbets treat dieters to a guilt-free culinary delight. Jams and jellies are a reminder of summer, long after the leaves have fallen from the raspberry canes and the bears that fed on them have begun to hibernate. Your options are nearly limitless.
If you are lucky enough to have more berries than you can use, lay them out on a cookie sheet, making sure that they do not touch, and freeze them. Once they are frozen, you can seal them in a zippered freezer bag and store them for several months. They will not keep their shape well enough to use decoratively, but they will work nicely for smoothies, cobblers, and pies. You do not need to thaw them before using.
Alternatively, make up your pie filling with fresh berries and freeze it in a plastic tub. Some Saturday in January, when you are ready to fill the house with the sweet, delicious smells of baking, thaw the filling out, pour it into a pie shell, and top with a lattice crust. Pop it into the oven, and…out comes a slice of July.
To help you enjoy the season’s bounty of berries, we offer below two of our favorite recipes. Other berries can be substituted for those listed in a recipe; simply modify the amount of sugar called for according to the sweetness of the berries you have on hand.
2 quarts black raspberries
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup crème de cassis
(or fresh orange juice)
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and whir until very smooth. If you do not want to use the crème de cassis, substitute fresh orange juice. Strain the mixture to remove the seeds, mashing the paste through a sieve to extract all the liquid. Chill until cold, and then freeze according to the instructions of your ice-cream maker.
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 T. sugar
10 T. butter, frozen, and cut into 1/2” chunks
8 T. vegetable shortening, frozen, and cut
into 1/2” chunks
1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water
• In a food processor combine flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening and blend just until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, with chunks of butter remaining. This will take about 10 very short pulses. The mixture should not be uniform, as it is the chunks of unprocessed butter that will give the crust its desirable flaky texture.
• Turn mixture into a large bowl and stir in water, a bit at a time, using a rubber spatula. Add enough water so that dough holds together well, but is not sticky.
• Gather dough into a ball, flatten ball into a disk, dust with flour, and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour.
3 pints blueberries, rinsed, drained, and
any squished or overripe fruit removed
1 cup sugar
2 t. fresh lemon juice
3 T. quick cooking tapioca
• Mix together blueberries, sugar, lemon juice, and tapioca and let stand for 15 minutes.
2 T. unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
• Divide pie dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Return smaller piece to the refrigerator and roll out the larger one. Place in pie dish, pour filling in, top with butter.
• Roll out smaller piece of dough and top the pie. Crimp edges to seal. Cut slits in top crust to let steam out.
• Bake at 400˚ until top crust is golden, about 20 minutes. Then turn heat down to 350˚ and continue to bake until the filling bubbles, about 40 minutes longer.
• Cool completely before eating. If you can.
Food Editor Elise Lufkin has been growing, harvesting, and cooking berries all her life. In this issue, she gives us her favorite recipes and tips.