Saturday, July 21, 2007

Blueberries: Native Treat

Blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America. Classified as a heath like the cranberry, the highbush blueberry, the most common of the commercial cultivars, thrives in wetland regions and tolerates harsh winters. The wild lowbush blueberry—that small, intensely flavored, and increasingly elusive and expensive berry—grows only in the brushy forest understory of Eastern coastal states, and only a trickle comes to market fresh: less than 1% of Maine’s production, for example. They are a true New England treat. Blueberries are, of course, beautiful: purple-y blue-grey, a touch of iridescence and attractive powdery white bloom, and a
charming little ruffle at the blossom end. But we all know that, in this world, looks increasingly are not enough. Nutritionally, blueberries— particularly the little wild ones—also have greater antioxidant capacity per serving than any other fruit. They are, so I am told, a rewarding plant for the home gardener, particularly the larger, highbush variety. And they are a versatile talent in the kitchen.
While peak harvest is generally July—which is National Blueberry Month—blueberries have been a little late this year in our area. One reason is the weather, a late spring frost. But one can only wonder to what extent the disappearance of the bees has had or may have an impact, particularly to the prized wild berries. The blueberry crop is pollinated by zillions of honey-bees, many of them imported by growers of cultivated berries specifically for the purpose. If the bees go, will the blueberries be far behind? Try to contemplate a world without fresh wild blueberry pie, spilling out on a white plate on a hazy summer’s day.
Blueberries are high in pectin; with added acid such as lemon, they are excellent for jam and preserves. Because of their gelling qualities, be careful when making blueberry pie not to use too much starch to thicken the juices, or you will end up with a gummy mass that, moreover, eliminates two of the most special qualities of blueberry pie: its syrupy juiciness and the loose, combined-but-separate, slightly popping texture of the berries. Pies are certainly a favorite way to eat them, but blueberries are extremely versatile fruit. Color, size, and a blooming appearance, plus a taste that, at their best, is a combination of sweet, spicy, and tart, put them at home in a wide range of sweet and savory dishes. They combine well with other berries and with both stone and tropical fruits; are good raw or dried in cereals and salads; are yummy with cream and sugar or over ice cream with a little liqueur or aged, herbed balsamic; make delicious cornbread, pancakes, muffins, jams, smoothies, and syrups; are good stirred into yogurt or cottage cheese or baked in bread puddings and custards; and make nice sauces and condiments for meat and poultry. I use them a lot.
I’m particular when I buy them, though. Like all mass-cultivated fruits that are available year-round and may look pretty good, blueberries vary almost as much in quality as they do in uses. Taste before buying; if you shop at a market, I give you permission to open those little plastic containers and try—or, if that doesn’t seem right, ask the produce man if you can taste one. The worst sin, commercial or local, is a mushy texture; this can be present even in a berry that looks plumply presentable, and is irredeemable. Sour (not tart) taste is next; it suggests the berries have been picked green. Don’t buy either. Insipid taste, perhaps the most common flaw, is a little more forgivable, because you can compensate for blah quite a bit within your recipes by adjusting, for example, the sugar, or by adding spices or citrus.
When you do find, usually locally, a good spicy blueberry, buy as many as you can get your hands on, and freeze any that you do not use right away (but be sure to make at least one pie or crisp or small batch of jam first). Frozen blueberries can be used interchangeably with fresh, without thawing, when making muffins, pancakes, steamed puddings, beverages, sauces, smoothies, and syrups. To freeze: Place berries on a sheet pan, without washing; keep them separated. Freeze until hard, then place into zip-lock bags, removing as much air as possible, and then into another zip-lock bag. I recommend bagging in 1-cup portions. They will keep for up to a year—indeed, I hoard at least one bag until May, so as not to be without blueberry pancakes.

It’s July, though, and while local berries are available, I’ll be baking with as many as I freeze, particularly for breakfast. All good breakfast items share certain characteristics: they are quick to assemble; are made from a few, usually handy, ingredients; and strike the right balance between rich flavor and light texture: a good real muffin (subject of a future post) or sour-milk pancake (see May 6, 2007 post) fits this bill. So does a good breakfast cake, cobbler, buckle, or crisp. Here is one of several blueberry breakfast cakes I alternately bake, like a fond parent unable to choose among her offspring, all summer. And, because you can’t have too much of a good thing in summer, a simple blueberry crisp, yours from start to spoon in a bare half-hour.

Jane’s Rhode Island Blueberry Breakfast Cake I
(Serves 6)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups blueberries (mine are from Boughs & Berry Farm in Little Compton)
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup whole milk
2 large eggs
¼ tea salt
¼ tea each cinnamon and cloves
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
heavy cream, preferably unhomogenized
Heat oven to 375 F. Butter and lightly flour an 8” square pan. Sift flour into a medium-size bowl; remove a few tablespoons and toss in a small bowl with the dry blueberries and spices. Sift the sugar, baking powder, and salt into the flour and combine. Measure the milk into a glass measuring cup, add the eggs, and beat until blended. Pour the milk/egg into the flour/sugar mixture and blend until flour just disappears; add the spiced and floured blueberries and fold in carefully with a wooden spoon until the additional flour disappears. Pour over the batter the ½ cup of melted butter (it should be completely liquid and still slightly warm—I use the microwave to melt it), and fold and stir it in gently with the spoon until it is completely incorporated, but don’t overdo. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the middle of the oven for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean but the cake is only lightly browned and does not pull away from the sides. Cool on a rack for about 10 minutes, cut into rectangles, and serve in shallow bowls with heavy cream poured over. If there is any left, keep covered with foil on the counter; reheat for just a few seconds in a microwave.

My Favorite Blueberry Crisp (Serves 4)
2 generous cups blueberries
juice of half a lemon
½ cup a-p flour
¾ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ tea mixed ground cinnamon, cloves, and fresh-grated nutmeg (i.e., a few shakes of each, a few twists of the nutmeg mill)
¼ tea salt
4 oz (half a stick) unsalted butter, softened
heavy cream, preferably unhomogenized
Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter a small gratin or other baking dish (a 1-2 qt capacity). Put the dry blueberries into the dish, squeeze over the lemon, and toss. In a small bowl, put the flour, salt, spices, and packed brown sugar—do not break it up. Add the soft butter and, with a fork, quickly incorporate the butter to blend and form loose crumbs. Sprinkle over the berries. Bake about 15-18 minutes, until brown and juicy. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Serve in small bowls with, you guessed it, heavy cream poured over.

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