When I was 8, we took a family vacation to British Columbia. One of the most vivid memories I have of that three-week trip (other than my older brother provoking me at every turn before proclaiming, "She started it!") was picking huckleberries in the woods behind the home of family friends.
As a child raised on the convenience foods of the 1970s, eating too many dehydrated and reconstituted blueberry waffles, muffins, pancakes and cereals, the image of tramping through the ferny undergrowth picking sweet-tart wild berries sticks with me. I remember, too, the roadhouse huckleberry pies we ate on that trip, and fresh berries we'd picked ourselves, blanketed with unsweetened whipped cream.
Huckleberries, bilberries, whortleberries -- all are common names for the genus Vaccinium, or wild blueberries. The term blueberry is the standard name for the commercially grown fruit, brought into cultivation in New Jersey in 1920 from a wild cultivar.
Because blueberries thrive in acidic, boggy soil that is of little use to most other crops, the introduction of cultivars created a new market for the agricultural industry on land that might otherwise be unable to yield crops.
Today, commercial blueberries are primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and parts of the East Coast. The modern supermarket blueberry is a version of its wild cousin, hybridized for uniform size and flavor. Relying on the convenience of store-bought blueberries, however, means sacrificing the freshness and flavor complexities that small-scale, sustainably cultivated blueberries offer.
"Just because commercial blueberries are big doesn't mean they're sweeter," says Michael Salinas, farm manager of the Modesto area's Kennedy Farms. "They're hybridized for durability, to hold up during shipping and in cold storage. Our berries vary in size because they're picked for flavor, not according to a purchasing agent's requirements."
Kennedy Farms grows four varieties of blueberry, which are in season from early May through early July.
The first two varieties are Early Blue, which is smaller and more tart, and my favorite, O'Neil. O'Neil is larger and sweeter, with a residual tartness. In early June, Late Blue, a large, sweet variety, and Misty, which is similar to O'Neil, are in. The Misty and O'Neil are also more heat-tolerant, so they're more plentiful.
While Kennedy Farms isn't federally certified as organic, this is the farm's 15th year of cultivation without the use of chemicals, and all products used on their crops are certified organic. Blueberries easily lend themselves to sustainable growing practices, explains Salinas. "They're not prone to blight, and they're very winter-tolerable, so they don't require sulfur application to prevent mildew as a result of damp weather."
Blueberries, like plums and grapes, also produce "bloom," which accounts for the hazy, whitish film on their skin. Bloom is a wax produced by certain fruits, which acts as a natural antibacterial guard.
Blueberries also have a surprising number of health benefits. They are rich in vitamin C, and wild blueberries have the top antioxidant capacity of any fruit (although cultivated blueberries are also a terrific source). Antioxidants are thought to slow the effects of aging and aid in the prevention of cancer and heart disease.
The fruit also contain flavanoids, another cancer-fighter. And, like their close relative the cranberry, blueberries contain compounds that have been shown to prevent the bacteria responsible for causing urinary tract infections from adhering to the bladder wall.
Blueberries store well, up to seven to 10 days in the refrigerator. Salinas recommends storing them in an airtight container lined on the top and bottom with dry paper towels. The fruit lend themselves to all manner of baked goods, preserves and even some savory dishes. My favorite way to eat blueberries is in a crisp, served warm with a dollop of lavender-infused whipped cream.
In fact, blueberries lend themselves well to pairing with a number of other fruit, herbs or spices, including lemon, stonefruit, other berries, lemon verbena or rose geranium. I especially like to make herb-infused simple syrups or flavor whipping cream with a hint of herb or spice for adding an intriguing note to compotes or as a garnish on a dessert.
An excellent resource for pairing flavors and providing recipe guidelines for these types of infusions is "The Herbfarm Cookbook" by Jerry Traunfeld (Scribner, $40), as quantities for flavoring agents vary, depending on what you're using and if they're fresh or dried. I've also found that it's always necessary to add a bit of sugar to infused whipping creams to balance the flavors -- the lavender cream, for example, tastes soapy if you forgo the sugar.
If you'd like to use blueberries in a savory dish, stick to using them in a compote or sauce for game such as duck, quail or venison, perhaps enriched with port or a full-bodied red wine. Or experiment with salads or vinaigrettes -- blueberry vinegar is available at specialty food stores.
Blueberries are available from the following farms: Kennedy Farms, Berkeley, Marin and Jack London farmers' markets; Sierra Cascade Blueberries, Berkeley and San Francisco Ferry Building farmers' markets.
BERRY CRISP WITH LAVENDER CREAM
For the filling:
Unsalted butter for greasing ramekins
2 pints blueberries
2-4 tablespoons of Sugar
1 to 11/2 tablespoon flour
For crisp topping:
1/2 cup hazelnuts or almonds
1 cup flour
3 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter six 4-ounce ramekins and set on a baking sheet.
Add berries to a large bowl and toss them with the sugar and flour. Use the larger amount of flour if the berries are juicy. Let stand while you make the crisp topping.
Chop nuts medium-fine and set aside. Combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces. Work it into the flour mixture with your fingers until crumbly. Add the chopped nuts and mix well -- the topping should hold together when squeezed (can be prepared up to a week ahead and refrigerated.)
Put the berry mixture into the ramekins, filling them 3/4 of the way up. Coat top of berries evenly with crisp mixture and press down lightly. Slide the baking sheet of ramekins onto the center rack of the oven for 35-40 minutes or until the topping is dark golden brown and the juices have thickened slightly. Serve warm with lavender cream.
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped dried lavender blossoms
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Stir the cream and lavender together. Refrigerate, covered, for 3 hours. Just before serving, strain through a fine sieve and add the powdered sugar. Whip until soft peaks form. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Per Serving: 533 Calories; 34g Fat; 5g Protein; 56g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 85mg Cholesterol; 25mg Sodium.
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