Tastes of Summer: A Guide to the Season’s Berry Bonanza

 Tiny, brilliant orbs of pure health, berries are the jewels of the fruit world. Not only are these gems beautiful in colour – they range from almost black to purple and blue to ruby-red and even orange – summer berries are rich in anthocyanins, nature’s natural antioxidant pigment.

It’s those intense jewel tones that protect the plant’s precious fruit from being destroyed by heat or the sun’s rays, which also protect our own cells. Indeed, the blue pigment in blueberries or blackberries, the bright red tones of raspberries and strawberries, and the yellow and orange colour of some gooseberries all contain a potent combination of phytochemicals designed to keep our own cell walls safe from the aging ravages of free radicals.

Plump, ripe summer berries are versatile – delicious on their own or in combination with other fruits – and flavourful in sauces and glazes, adding a powerful, healthy punch to vegetarian and fish main dishes. In fact, berries are one of the best possible ingredients for including in meals every day. Use them fresh or frozen, in smoothies or with whole grain cereals at breakfast, as a snack and/or dessert at lunch, and tossed with other fruits or in a salsa with the main meal of the day.

BERRY PRIMER

In the summer, it’s not hard to incorporate fresh berries into meals. Starting early in the season with strawberries and followed quickly with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and mulberries, summer meals are brighter and richer with the addition of these tart-sweet packets of nutrition.

Choose dry, ripe, plump, firm, sweet berries with uniform colour, shape, and size. Signs of white or light green mean that the berries are underripe and won’t ripen once picked. Berries are highly perishable and should be transported in a cooler and used immediately because they spoil easily, especially if allowed to stand at room temperature. Store in a cool place or in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, and don’t wash until just before using.

In general, berries contain a bonanza of chemicals proven to have exceptional antioxidant, anti-diabetic, and heart-protective properties. Below, we follow the berry trail as each delicious variety brings its unique taste and intense healing qualities to the table.

Strawberries – The cone-shaped strawberry is an aggregate fruit with about 100 tiny seeded fruits gathered around a central hub, called a peduncle. Juice, jams, and preserves made from aggregate fruits are often strained in order to remove the seeds.

Anglo-Saxons had their stréawbrerige, the French still have their fraises de bois (wood strawberries from woodland meadows), and North Americans have Fragaria vesca Americana, a native wild strawberry still held to be the tastiest of all strawberries now in existence.

Strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries contain chemicals such as phenols and ellagitannins, which protect our cells from mutation (the first step in the development of cancer). According to a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, strawberries were effective in protecting the liver against cancer, and molecular biologist Susan Zunino’s tests on acute lymphoblastic leukemia provided evidence that compounds in strawberries can inhibit these leukemia cells.

Raspberries – American Red Raspberry (Rubus strigosus) plants may be divided into two categories: ever-bearing, which produce fruit in late spring or early-to-mid-summer and again in the fall; and summer-bearing varieties, which produce only one harvest in summer. While red raspberries are the most common, you may find yellow/gold, purple, and black raspberries at a market in your area. There are dozens of varieties to choose from, but generally, look for a local variety with large, firm fruit that is bright red, black, or purple in colour.

Low in calories (only 64 per cup) and high in fibre (8 g per cup), raspberries are nutrient-dense with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins C and K. Raspberries are high in ellagic acid, which the American Cancer Society points to as a promising natural supplement due to its ability to kill cancer cells in laboratory tests. They are second only to cherries in their level of anthocyanins – powerful arthritis pain and inflammation fighters.

Freezing tip: For whole raspberries to decorate cakes or for use in fruit salads, the best way to ensure that they hold their shape during freezing is to fast-freeze individual berries. Arrange washed, completely dry berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet, ensuring that the berries do not touch. Fast freeze for one hour. Pack into freezer bags (no need to leave headspace). Squeeze air out, seal, label, and return to freezer.

Blackberries – As members of the rose family of plants, blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and raspberries grow on brambles or canes, and are sometimes called bramble fruits. You may still find them growing wild in country hedgerows because they tolerate shade. The thorns of the blackberry plant are much more dangerous to the berry picker than those of the raspberry and for this reason, thornless varieties have been cultivated and are preferred, especially by pick-your-own operators. Unlike the central core of the raspberry, that of the blackberry stays with the blackberry and can be eaten when ripe.

Second to blueberries, which scored 2400 in ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity or antioxidant, anti-aging measurement), blackberries scored 2036 units.

Blueberries – The lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is a North American native species found in eastern and central Canada and the northeastern U.S. Its small, dark blue berries are firm and tart/sweet – excellent for preserving. Indigenous people dried blueberries, currants, elderberries, and cranberries for use during the winter. Vaccinium is the genus of bilberry and cranberry.

Packed with powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, blueberries facilitate neural communication and protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, and heart disease, according to research by Dr. James Joseph, U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition and Research Center on Aging at Tufts University (see Reading List).

Currants – Being true berries (unlike raspberries and strawberries, which are aggregate fruits), currants and gooseberries have been used for pies, jam, jelly, juice, and fruit desserts for ages. Native to the colder parts of North America and Europe, it is only in the latter part of the 20th century that they began to disappear from our tables, at about the same time that the family garden began to decline. Almost everyone I know who is over 60 – living in the city or country – can remember the currant or gooseberry patch in their grandparents’ garden.

Currants are bright red, deep purple, or black and white, round, almost translucent globes, and they are filled with seeds. Their taste is sharp and tart and I find that the best way to use them is to mash and strain them through a cone colander and use only the juice.

The red and black currants are high in polyphenols and anthocyanins, which make them heart-healthy, brain-healthy, and anti-inflammatory. Blackcurrant seed oil is a good source of Vitamin E and several unsaturated fatty acids.

Cranberries – In the northern U.S. and Canada, cranberries are the last fruit of the season (November). They have a significant place in our history, as they are one of the gifts from first peoples to European settlers, which may have saved many of them from the fatal disease called scurvy. Cranberries grow in acidic peat bogs or acidic sand beds throughout the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Vaccinium macrocarpon is the cranberry species that is native to North America. The Vaccinium species are the true cranberry and are all low-growing plants.

Their anthocyanin pigments, condensed tannins, and vitamins and minerals give cranberries anti-cancer properties. Benzoic acid gives cranberries antibacterial properties, which means that they help prevent urinary tract infections, as well as inhibit the growth of foodborne pathogens.

This is a silky smooth, savoury sauce for appetizers, starters, and meat entrees. Wild blueberries will be the most flavourful for this sauce, but you can use any fresh or frozen blueberry available to you. (Makes 4 cups.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored, and quartered
  • 1-1/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup brown rice syrup
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp Chinese Five Spice Blend

1) In a skillet, heat olive oil and sesame oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently until soft, about 6 minutes. Cool.

2) In a blender or food processor, working in batches, puree the blueberries, apple, and onions. Add orange juice, brown rice syrup, vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and spices. Process until smooth.

3) Pour pureed mixture into a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring occasionally for 30 to 45 minutes, or until sauce has thickened.

4) Meanwhile, heat 4 one-cup (250 mL) Mason jars in boiling water and pour boiling water over the lids. Ladle hot sauce into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch (0.5 cm) headspace. Remove air bubbles and add more hot blueberry sauce if necessary, to leave a 1/4-inch (0.5 cm) headspace. Wipe rims, top with flat lids, and screw on metal rings. Cool and store jars in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks.

Living as I do in farm country with mixed farming all around me, I have made friends with many of my neighbours and talk food with them as often as I can. And I have come to know a bit about potatoes. For example, the Russet potato and the Yukon Gold (big around here) are waxy (or low in starch) and hold their shape when shredded, so I don’t make pancakes unless I have one or the other. Some folks parboil potatoes before making potato pancakes, but I have never had any luck with this method, no matter what potato I use. If you choose to pre-cook the potatoes, cook them for only 8 to 10 minutes in boiling water, not until they are soft. Remember, they will continue to cook after you drain off the boiling water. You can stop the cooking process by immersing them in ice water until cool. But if you overcook them, the pancakes will not hold together.  (Serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold
  • 1 small sweet potato
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 small red onion, halved
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh sage
  • freshly ground sea salt and pepper
  • about 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup Blueberry Dipping Sauce (above)

1) Preheat oven to 325° F (160° C).

2) Using a food processor or mandolin, shred the 2 white (waxy) potatoes and the sweet potato. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Shred the carrot and half the onion, add to the mixing bowl. Thinly slice the remaining half of the red onion and add to the mixing bowl. Add thyme and sage. Grind salt and pepper over. Mix well. Dust with flour and mix well.

3) In a small bowl, beat the egg. Add to the vegetables and mix well.

4) In a skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Measure out the potato mixture in 1/3 cup measures. Scrape out of the measuring cup into the hot oil and flatten with the back of a spoon. Add one or two more scoops of potato mixture to the skillet. Reduce heat and cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned on one side. Flip and cook for 3 to 5 minutes on the other side.

5) Remove pancakes and place on a rimmed baking sheet, lined with paper towels. Cover with foil, and keep warm in the preheated oven while the remaining potato pancakes are cooked. Serve hot with Blueberry Dipping Sauce.

References

Pat Crocker is a Culinary Herbalist, Home Economist, and Healthy Food Writer. She believes in berries. Photographer, lecturer, and author of several award-winning books, Pat’s latest book (with co-author Nettie Cronish), Everyday Flexitarian, is now available. Her other books, including The Yogurt Bible, The Vegan Cook’s Bible, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, The Juicing Bible, and The Smoothies Bible, are available at bookstores throughout Canada and the U.S. Write or e-mail Pat at 536 Mill Street, Neustadt ON N0G 2M0, pcrocker@riversongherbals.com, or visit her blog at foodweds herbs.blogspot.com

Reading List

• American Cancer Society. Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods. Foreword by David S. Rosenthal, MD.

• Dr. James Joseph, Daniel A. Nadeau and Anne Underwood. The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health. New York: New York: Hyperion; 2002.

• Lori Longbotham. Luscious Berry Desserts. San Francisco: Chronicle Books; 2006.

Sources:

1.http://ddr.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/40614/1/IND43668145.pdf  ‘Antimutagenic Activity of Berry Extracts’ Journal of Medicinal Food; 7 (4) 2004, 450-455 © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. and Korean Society of Food Science and Nutrition

Journal of Functional Foods, 2009.

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