What's In Season: Berries
Berries are one of our most perfect foods. With splendid flavor while also being really good for us, they're packed with vitamins and antioxidants while also low in calories. But most of all, berries are like nature's jewels: individual, precious, and uncommon.
How To Buy And Store Berries
Beautiful, just-picked berries are easy to spot. There's a simultaneous perfection/imperfection to them, distinguishing them from the all-perfect-all-the-time ones sold year-round in our grocery stores.
Choose ones that have beautiful and intense color, that are firm and fragrant, and if you can, ask for a taste so you know how sweet they are. At the height of the berry season, you may also find berries that are unfamiliar -- such as golden yellow raspberries. You won't know if you love them unless you buy, eat, and maybe cook with them so be adventuresome.
Seasonal berries are fragile and highly perishable so treat them with care. Blueberries should be rinsed just before eating or cooking with them. But raspberries and blackberries -- I don't rinse them at all. If you're worried about food sanitation, keep in mind that rinsing with water does not sanitize food; it only removes surface dirt (only cooking with heat can destroy bacteria). When you rinse a delicate raspberry or blackberry that has been picked by hand, the water will immediately penetrate the fragile skin and the berry will begin to disintegrate. Instead, just carefully sort through the berries and remove any damaged ones, or any errant bits of leaf or stem.
Try not to buy berries more than a day or two before you plan to eat or cook with them. As for storing, the best thing to do is leave the berries unwashed and at room temperature, out of the sun. But this really only works if you plan to eat them within 24-hours. Otherwise, still leaving them unwashed and in the container in which you bought them, wrap them loosely in a plastic bag and refrigerate. But remember that with every day the berries stay stored and chilled, they will lose some flavor. The most compelling proof of this is how remarkable a berry tastes right as it's been picked and tossed into your mouth. There is nothing that will improve on that flavor and the further the berry is from its vine, the lesser its intensity.
It's easy to freeze berries, and if you have a big enough freezer, it's one of the best flavors to capture and keep for winter when a batch of muffins or pancakes made with defrosted local blueberries will be a real treat. That said, the best way to freeze berries is to scatter them in a single layer on a baking sheet (if blueberries -- wash them first; if raspberries or blackberries, just pick through for any debris or little leaves). Freeze until the fruit is solid and then transfer the berries to freezer-proof bags and use them within six months. I've never had a freezer big enough to do this, but I've seen it done and the prize is that the berries stay individual and intact instead of crushing together.
For most recipes you should use the berries still frozen, without defrosting because as the berries thaw they'll disintegrate and become a mush. So if making muffins or pancakes, just add the berries, still frozen solid, to the batter, being gentle with them at every step of the cooking.
Easy Berry Desserts
If you want something more elaborate than a bowl of fresh berries with a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, one of the easiest ways to add local, in-season berries to a dessert is to turn them into a sauce. Here are two methods for making fruit sauce -- one is cooked and the other is raw -- but both have huge flavor and taste like summer.
- Blueberry and Cassis Sauce: This sauce is made more complex with the addition of a little crème de cassis, a liqueur made from black currants that's best known as the ingredient that turns white wine into a cocktail known as a Kir. Cassis adds a slightly tangy flavor to the berries' sweetness. You can find cassis at almost any liquor store. See our recipe for the sauce.
- Fresh Raspberry Sauce: This simple fruit sauce is the kind that is also called a coulis, made by combining crushed and sieved raspberries with sugar. It has a lively flavor that is as vibrant as its bright red color. You can also make this sauce with blackberries or strawberries but remember that it will only taste as good as the berries with which you make it. See our recipe.
What To Do With Berry Sauces
Whether cooked or raw, fresh berry sauces are very versatile:
- Mixed with sweetened whipped cream it makes a simple berry fool. Combine equal amounts of chilled berry sauce (either one that has been cooked or is still raw) with heavy cream that is whipped to firm peaks and lightly sweetened with granular or confectioner's sugar; you don't need a lot of sugar in the cream because the fruit sauce is already sweetened. Fold the two together until just incorporated and chill for up to 4 hours (any longer and the whipped cream may begin to separate). Upon serving, drizzle a little extra sauce on top or add a few of the berries from which the sauce is made.
- Make berry parfaits by layering spoonfuls of a fruit sauce with mascarpone cheese, the Italian creamy, tangy cheese, or crème fraiche. Top with whole berries and a sprig of fresh mint.
- Serve with a milky panna cotta.
- Pour over mango or lemon sorbet to make a light summer sundae.
- Drizzle over slices of store-bought or homemade pound cake and sliced fresh peaches.
- Add a puddle of raspberry sauce next to a chocolate brownie.
- Add a spoonful to a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade to add both sweetness and beautiful color. This is particularly good using the Fresh Raspberry Sauce because it has no seeds or skins and the color is gorgeous.
Other Berry Dishes
- Gooseberry Two-Crusted Tart: One uncommon berry is the gooseberry. With an appearance that is more like a grape than a raspberry, gooseberries range in color from red to yellow and green; the ones with the paler color are more tart and wonderful for cooking. Gooseberry fool is also easy to make but if you come across a bounty of gooseberries, think instead about making a gooseberry tart. See our recipe.
- Blueberry Sorbet: This simple sorbet relies upon the blueberries for both its flavor and beautiful purple color. Two tablespoons of vodka add no flavor but help keep the sorbet from freezing into a solid block of ice. If you don't want to add alcohol, you'll need to take the sorbet out of the freezer about 15 minutes in advance so that it softens enough to serve. See our recipe.
Other easy ways to enjoy summer berries include:
- Shortcake. Bake or buy plain, sweet biscuits, split each open and layer with berries and sweetened whipped cream.
- Similar to shortcakes, pavlovas are baked meringues made with sweetened eggs whites that have been slowly baked until crisp but still pale white that are served with berries or other sliced fruit and whipped cream. Bake your own or buy store or bakery-bought meringues for a quick dessert good enough and pretty enough for company.
- Berry Sundaes. Spoon berries, that have been crushed with a little sugar and let to sit for a few minutes to become juicy, over vanilla ice cream and top with whipped cream and sliced almonds.
- Summer Salads. Slice strawberries into your favorite tossed salad and finish with a sprinkle of feta cheese.
- Strawberries with balsamic vinegar. This is when to use that expensive little bottle of good aged balsamic that you bought as a souvenir or received as a gift. The vinegar's sweet/sour tang is an unexpected yet perfect match for fresh strawberries. Just drizzle a small amount of vinegar on the fruit for a particularly refreshing dessert after a rich meal.
- Whole strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar. Pass a bowl of big strawberries, ideally with the stems still attached, to dip into tangy sour cream and then light brown sugar (the sugar is best if it's from a just-opened box so that it's still soft and easy to adhere to the sour cream).
- Fruit Pies. Simple summer blueberry, mixed berry, and strawberry rhubarb pies are classic summer treats. Serve with a scoop of vanilla or honey ice cream.
- Crumbles, Crisps and Cobblers. Because berries have a lot of juice, bake them with a topping that adds texture while also absorbing some of the berries' sweet juices. See our recipe for Blueberry Crisp.
- Clafoutis. While this classic fruit and custard baked dessert is usually made with sweet cherries, you can likewise use raspberries or blackberries.
- Add unsweetened raspberry purée to white wine vinegar to make your own raspberry vinegar.
- Use seasonal berries to make the best smoothies you'll have all year.
- Berries and Savory Dishes. Besides salads, berries can be added to yogurt and oatmeal or add a handful of blackberries to a cassis sauce just before it's served with roasted duck breasts, stirring until the berries are slightly softened and warmed through. See our recipe.
If red currants are a favorite you'll enjoy a piece from David Lebovitz that shows how he used an early summer bounty of these precious, ruby berries to cure, well, whatever was ailing him. See our link below.