Freshen Up Your Summer Menu with BerriesGwen Cortis July 1, 2007
I heard a news report recently stating that the main concern of Canadians at this time is to maintain good health. Proper nutrition is certainly on our minds, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun. What better way to add colour and pizzazz to the table than to include berries in our diet? Berries, like cherries, are nutritional powerhouses that help to protect us from illness.
A former student of mine, a young woman with children, once told me a remarkable story about berries. Diagnosed with cervical cancer, she needed medical attention right away. While waiting for treatment, she met with a homeopathic doctor she knew in Mexico. Naturally, he prescribed homeopathic remedies. He also advised her to eat berries every day. When she was eligible for treatment a few months later she was surprised to discover that the cancer had almost completely vanished. Shortly thereafter, it was gone. This doesn’t mean that berries can cure all cancers, but as the authors of Foods that Fight Cancer point out, berries contain real treasures in the form of cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
What else is noteworthy about berries? They are excellent sources of antioxidant flavonoids, in particular, anthocyanidins. This is what gives them their deep colours and protective properties. These “petits fruits” also contain vitamins C and E, as well as manganese and copper. Berries are low in calories and provide a good source of soluble and insoluble fibre which helps with the elimination of cholesterol and toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Berries are generally considered to be anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory. They can be used in a variety of recipes, including smoothies, salads, muffins or just eaten raw or dried. Berries have an interesting history – some have been around for thousands of years and were popular with Native peoples.
Let’s consider blueberries first, often described as one of nature’s superfoods. They contain one of the highest levels of antioxidants among vegetables and fruits. There are over 30 species, some of which have been consumed since prehistoric times. Blueberries help protect against the oxidative stress associated with Alzheimers, as well as age-related macular degeneration. Blueberries are known to improve vision and protect against cataracts and glaucoma. A European variety, known as bilberry, was consumed by pilots during the Second World War before undertaking night missions. Blueberries can also be used to treat varicose veins, hemorrhoids and peptic ulcers. An added benefit – they taste great! Take advantage of the wild blueberries grown in central Ontario each summer before the bears get to them.
Cranberries, high in iron and vitamin C, boast many healthful properties as well. One of the few fruits native to North America, indigenous peoples used them in ceremonies, as medicine and as red dye. They were also used to stop bleeding and to counteract blood poisoning. Cranberries are most commonly known, however, for their ability to prevent E coli from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract. Consequently, they have been used for centuries to treat bladder infections. An article referring to convincing research on this matter was published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Cranberries are also believed to prevent kidney stones, atherosclerosis, macular degeneration, and cancer. They can be cooked, dried or pressed into a juice. Buy the unsweetened organic juice for best results. Cranberries are sometimes nicknamed a “phytochemical phenomenon” as they contain five times the antioxidant level of broccoli. No wonder a popular resort in Collingwood, Ontario chose “Cranberry” as its namesake!
If you drive less than an hour north-east of Collingwood, you will find the “cranberry capital” of Ontario, named Bala. You can watch the fall harvest on the bog and eat cranberries to your heart’s content. They are in season during September and October.
Strawberries and Raspberries
Strawberries and raspberries deserve honourable mention as well. Rich in B vitamins, plus the vitamins and minerals mentioned earlier, they are delicious raw or ideal in salads and smoothies. Strawberries are over 2,000 years old and have been grown in California since the early 1900s. In the previous century, however, they were reserved mainly for royalty (hence the strawberry and champagne tradition at Wimbledon). Both strawberries and raspberries contain strong anti-cancer properties. They both contain significant amounts of ellagic acid, which stimulates the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Strawberries also inhibit inflammation and heart disease. It is not surprising that people take to the fields during June and July with visions of strawberry shortcake dancing in their heads.
Anyone who is in poor health will benefit from raspberries. Herbalists use them for their cooling effect – they are often used to treat fever. Their astringency (ditto for blackberries) has a healing influence on the entire digestive tract, including sore gums, upset stomachs and diarrhea. When I was a child I was fortunate enough to have raspberries growing right in my back yard – I loved to pick them and eat them right away. Don’t let them sit in your refrigerator because they won’t last long. You can pick them fresh from late June right through to early September.
No discussion of berries would be complete without paying attention to the noble blackberry, the organic rather than the electronic type. According to legend, people in the U.K. believe that blackberries must be picked by mid-September lest they be taken over by the devil. Blackberries are rich in Vitamins C and E, antioxidants, potassium and fibre. They are good for circulation and protect the heart and arteries. Blackberry cordials have been known to treat diarrhea. The blackberry cordial recipe given below was found on www.bestberryrecipes.com. Keep blackberries in mind when you have a special occasion. Just like strawberries, they are very festive and go well with champagne.
Now let’s talk cherries. Imported cherries seem to mysteriously appear in supermarkets just in time for Christmas, when consumers are in the mood for a treat. What’s wrong with a little more red at that time of year? Cherries were one of the first fruits brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s. George Washington apparently chopped down his father’s cherry tree and lived to regret it. The beautiful cherry blossoms which appear on trees in the spring in this area seem to announce the upcoming harvest. In Ontario, cherry season peaks in July, but some are available in mid-June.
There are two main types of cherries, sweet and sour. Sour cherries are slightly higher in nutrients than their sweet cousins. In addition to the nutrients mentioned above, both sour and sweet cherries contain melatonin (which helps you snooze) and are able to inhibit cyclooxygenase, an enzyme known as both COX-1 and COX-2. This means that they help to reduce inflammation and pain – they are believed to be as effective (in sufficient quantities) as some common anti-inflammatory drugs in this regard. Cherries are therefore helpful in treating arthritis and gout. In addition to these surprising qualities, they are also thought to protect against colon and breast cancer. Long live the beautiful and elegant cherry!
Like all good things, berries should be used with caution, especially around children. Some berries are a common allergen, but they usually don’t cause a severe reaction. Berries, especially strawberries, contain salicylates, so people with an intolerance to aspirin should avoid them. Cranberries, blueberries and raspberries contain oxalates. If you have calcium oxalate-containing kidney stones, you need to limit consumption.
We are fortunate that berries are now available almost year-round in Canada. If they are unavailable fresh, buy a bag of frozen berries and make smoothies. Wild and organic are the best bets but if you can’t find them, any berry is better than no berry. Just make sure that you wash them carefully right before serving.
If you are adventurous you can have fun planning a berry-picking outing, followed by a healthful feast. Consult the following website for information and directions to various “pick-your-own” farms in Ontario – http://www.harvestontario.com. Don’t forget to call ahead to confirm availability.
Laura Martin’s Berry Flan
I attended Bruce’s birthday party recently and was delighted to find this delicious blueberry flan. His mother-in-law, Laura Martin, kindly offered to share her recipe for this article.
Grease a square pan “just a little” and add a package of frozen blueberries or mixed berries. Sprinkle with tiny amounts of sugar and small dabs of butter. To make the topping, mix together a half cup of olive oil, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and 1 cup flour*. Make a crumble and sprinkle over the berry mixture. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes or until nicely browned.
* Try substituting organic succanat for brown sugar and organic whole wheat flour for regular flour. Enjoy!
Blackberry Cordial (no alcohol)
Select large ripe berries. Mash and strain through course cheesecloth without heating them. To every quart of juice add 2 cups sugar. (Try 1 cup first.) Tie in thick muslin bag: 4-1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, 1 Tbsp whole cinnamon, 1 Tbsp whole cloves, and 1 small piece mace. Boil juice and spices slowly for 25 minutes. Remove spice bag and stir in 4 Tbsp vanilla extract. Pour into sterilized jars to within 1/2 inch of top of jar. Seal jars immediately. Taken from http://www.justberryrecipes.com.
Foods that Fight Cancer by Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras,; McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, Joseph Pizzorno and Lara Pizzorno; Atria Books, 2005.
The Healthy Breast Program. Teacher Training Manual by Dr. Sat Dharam Kaur; http://www.healthybreastprogram.on.ca/workshops.html
The New Complete Book of Food, by Carol Ann Rinzler; Checkmark Books, 1999.
Superfoods for Children by Michael Van Straten and Barbara Griggs; DK Publishing Inc., 2001.
The following recipes, along with the photos on page 16 and 20, come to us courtesy of Foodland Ontario.
Couscous Berry Salad
Blueberries and raspberries combine in this unique tangy and refreshing salad. Other Ontario berries can be substituted and still deliver full flavour. Couscous, a popular grain originating in North Africa, is now found in all Ontario supermarkets. (Serves 6)
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup couscous
- 1 cup Ontario blueberries
- 1/2 cup Ontario raspberries
- 1 green onion, sliced
- 3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 3 Tbsp chopped fresh mint
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp grated ginger root
- 1/4 tsp salt
1) In small saucepan, bring water to boil. Remove from heat and stir in couscous. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover and cool slightly, stirring occasionally.
2) Dressing: In small jar, combine vinegar, mint, oil, ginger root and salt; cover and shake well.
3) In bowl, mix dressing with couscous. Gently stir in blueberries, raspberries and green onion. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Fruit Salsa with Vanilla Cream and Cinnamon Wedges
Quick and easy, this dessert highlights juicy, sweet Ontario berries. For a dinner party, serve in stemmed glasses. The vanilla cream can also be served as a dip with seasonal fruits.
- 1 cup chopped Ontario strawberries
- 1 cup Ontario blueberries
- 1 cup Ontario raspberries
- 1 cup chopped pitted Ontario sweet cherries
- 1 tsp grated orange rind
- 3/4 cup light sour cream (5% M.F.)
- 1-1/2 Tbsp packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- Garnish: 4 stemmed Ontario Sweet Cherries
1) Fruit Salsa: In small bowl, combine strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries and orange rind.
2) Vanilla Cream: In small bowl, stir together sour cream, brown sugar and vanilla until sugar dissolves.
3) In 4 dessert glasses, layer fruit salsa and vanilla cream, repeating once. Garnish with stemmed cherry.
4) Variation: Add 1 Tbsp (15 mL) toasted coconut to the vanilla cream.