Hooray! It’s berry season. Pick your own, go to the farmers markets, go to the local store. Stock up now. You will be inspired.
When buying berries, I inspect them carefully. A stained basket means overripe fruit — which can mean moldy berries lurk out of view. Look for fruit free of blemishes. Hulls on strawberries should be fresh and green, not wilted, and the fruit red all the way to the stem. Raspberries, blackberries and black raspberries should be bright in color and stemless. Stems tell you that the berries were likely picked unripe, and unripe berries do not ripen further off the bush.
At the peak of the season I am prone to overbuying. No problem. Spread them out on a towel-lined baking sheet to dry; they will keep longer in the refrigerator. Inspect the berries for mold or bruises. Stack the berries into a container no more than 2 or 3 inches deep. Refrigerate, uncovered, up to several days. Gently rinse berries just before using.
Whole berries freeze beautifully and can be added frozen to pancake, waffle, cake and muffin batters. To ready berries for freezing, put them in a colander. (Don’t pile in too many or they’ll crush.) Use the sprayer on the sink or a little flow of water to very gently rinse the berries. Then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Once dry, remove the paper towels. Slide the baking sheet into the freezer until berries are frozen solid. Transfer to freezer containers or bags. Use within a few months.
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Berry puree likewise proves versatile. Simply puree fresh or frozen thawed berries and strain them to remove the seeds. The unsweetened puree freezes well and can be employed in savory applications. Add agave syrup to sweeten the puree for a fantastic pancake, waffle or shortcake topping.
Fresh strawberries, and a bit of berry puree, add sweetness and tang to fresh vinaigrettes. Use the following recipe to dress a bowl of greens tossed with chopped chives. Or, try it spooned over grilled, salt-and-pepper-seasoned chicken thighs. Grilled Belgian endive likewise tastes great when dressed with the berry vinaigrette and crumbled goat cheese.
Just for summer fun, make a berry wine syrup to drizzle over fresh berries, pancakes or frozen yogurt. A sprinkle over salads or grilled eggplant adds a sweet touch. Stir spoonfuls into iced tea or freshly squeezed lemonade; garnish with a couple of fresh berries.
I enjoy the sweet burst of flavor from berries mixed into savory grains for a meatless main dish. Fresh herbs, crumbled soft cheese and toasted nuts add textural contrast. Use the berry vinaigrette to season the cooked grains while they are warm for maximum flavor. Whole grain wheat berries sport good amounts of fiber, protein and iron. Fine, but I really cook and eat them because they are delicious, full of nutty flavor and toothsome texture. They take a while to cook, 45 minutes to an hour of simmering. Good news: You can cook a bunch in advance, then cool and freeze in small containers for quick weekday enjoyment.
Armed with containers of fresh berry puree, a tangy berry vinaigrette and some aromatic berry syrup, summer cooking couldn’t be sweeter.
FRESH BERRY PUREE
Put 3 cups (about 12 ounces) assorted clean fresh berries in a blender. Puree smooth. Push puree through a fine mesh strainer into a freezer container. Makes about 1-1/2 cups puree. Sweeten with agave syrup, if you like.
BERRY WINE SYRUP
Seedless berry jam adds the berry flavor to red wine. Try this on crepes filled with lightly sweetened whipped ricotta. Make a double recipe; the syrup keeps 2 weeks or more.
1 cup fruity red wine, such as pinot noir
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup best quality seedless berry jam or jelly (I like elderberry jelly here)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch cinnamon, optional
Put wine, sugar and jam into a small saucepan. Heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until mixture has reduced enough to make a thin syrup, about 20 minutes. Cool.
Stir in lemon juice and cinnamon. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature.
Makes: about 2/3 cup
WHEAT BERRY BERRY SALAD WITH GOAT CHEESE AND TOASTED WALNUTS
For a gluten-free salad, use sorghum. For faster salad options, substitute pearled farro or quinoa and cook according to package directions in about 15 minutes. Cracked wheat (bulgur) soaks to tenderness (no need to cook) in about 30 minutes. Leftover salad will keep refrigerated for several days; add the toasted nuts just before serving. Serve at room temperature.
2 cups wheat berries
6 cups vegetable broth or water
1 cup walnut pieces
Pink berry vinaigrette, see recipe, to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups thinly sliced hulled small strawberries
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or thinly sliced green onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
Butter lettuce or small romaine lettuce leaves
6 ounces crumbled goat cheese (or feta or queso fresco)
Berry wine syrup, see recipe optional (or balsamic glaze)
Chive blossoms or mint sprigs
Put wheat berries, broth and 1/4 teaspoon salt into a heavy saucepan. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover the pan tightly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until wheat berries are pleasantly chewy, 60 to 70 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool.
Meanwhile, put walnuts into a small dry skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until nuts are aromatic and a bit toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool, then chop roughly.
Strain the wheat berries in a wire-mesh strainer or a colander. Put wheat berries in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette to taste. Toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently fold in strawberries, chives and mint.
To serve, line salad plates with the lettuce leaves. Spoon wheat berry mixture onto the lettuce. Top with the cheese and walnuts. Drizzle with syrup, if using. Garnish with chive blossoms or mint.
Sweet Feta Mousse With Berries
President brand Valbreso feta, a product of France, is nice and soft. A Greek sheep and goat’s milk blend of feta, such as Mt. Vikos brand, is firmer and less milky tasting but also delicious.
14 to 16 ounces mild, soft feta cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons plain gelatin
6 ounces (2/3 cup) plain Greek yogurt or creamy German-style quark
1/2 cup part skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 to 4 cups mixed fresh raspberries, golden raspberries, black berries, thinly sliced small strawberries
Berry wine syrup, see recipe
Rinse feta well to help remove salty brine. Put into a bowl; cover with fresh water and let soak about 1 hour. Drain well and discard the water.
Line a 4-cup glass bowl with plastic wrap. Put gelatin and 1 tablespoon water in a small glass bowl; stir to mix. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.
Put feta, yogurt, ricotta, sugar, orange zest and vanilla into a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Microwave the gelatin for 30 seconds to melt it, then add to blender and process to mix. Scrape mixture into the prepared bowl. Cover with plastic. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours.
Remove top sheet of plastic. Invert bowl over a serving platter. Remove plastic wrap. Surround with mixed fresh berries. Serve drizzled with syrup.
Makes: 6 servings, about 3 cups