Fresh Berries: Having a Berry Wonderful Time

February is Berry Fresh Month

There's something special about a basket of fresh berries, whether they are black, blue or red. A farmer's market or roadside stand selling berries with that just-picked look and smell is my favorite place to shop, but most upscale grocery stores now have several varieties nearly all year.

The most popular berries in this country are strawberries. Sweet and tasty, the berries are high in fiber, low in calories, and contain Vitamin C. They may be rinsed and served just as they came off the plant, or they may be part of a more elaborate dessert. Culinary experts advise that smaller strawberries have the most flavor. Choose berries that still have their green tops and show no sign of mold. Don't hull or wash them until just before serving.

Raspberries are also a favorite, although they are more expensive. Since they aren't picked until they ripen, they mold and mildew quickly, a costly problem that shippers pass along to the consumer. Be aware that raspberries should be hollow. If the stem and core remain with the berries, they were picked before they were ripe and will have little or no taste.

Most of us know raspberries are red, but other varieties are available depending on where you live. Black raspberries, also called thimbleberries, can be found on the east coast, and golden and purple varieties are also harvested in some areas of the country.

Blackberries, referred to as brambles, are grown throughout the south and on the west coast. Varieties like dewberries and youngberries are part of the blackberry family. Cross-breeding between these berries and raspberries has produced loganberries, boysenberries and olallieberries. The varieties differ in taste, some being sweet and others tart. When cooking or baking, taste the berries and then adjust the sugar accordingly.

Blueberries are high in fiber and Vitamin C. Nutritionists believe the pigment that makes the berries blue contains antioxidants that help fight cancer. They may be one of the most versatile berries since they are good alone, with milk, in jams and jellies, and in baked goods like muffins and pies. Both wild and cultivated blueberries turn up in markets, but unless the basket is marked "wild", the berries are not. Wild huckleberries, distant relatives of blueberries, do not cultivate well and are seldom available except at roadside stands.

Growers continue to develop hybrids, searching for fat, juicy berries, that look pretty, taste good, resist mold and ship well. Although many of us prefer home-grown fruit, commercial production gives us access to berries that might have been unavailable in the past. And it means that if we want shortcake in December, we can probably find enough strawberries to satisfy our craving.

The ultimate berry accomplishment will be for the grower who manages to ship olallieberries to Texas. Grown in California, they make great pies and cobblers, but are difficult to locate outside their home area.

Even without olallieberries, the recipes that follow are sure to appeal to berry fans. The blackberry cobbler may be made with purchased pie crust or homemade pastry. Try the blueberry syrup on waffles or pancakes, and do try the strawberry sauce.

Quick Blackberry Cobbler

  • 4 cups fresh blackberries, rinsed
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 tablespoon butter, divided
  • 1 unbaked ready to use refrigerated pie crust

Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Spray a 7 x 11-inch baking dish with non-stick spray. Combine the blackberries, 1-1/3 cups of the sugar and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer about 5 minutes.

Unfold the pie crust and cut it in half. Cut one half into strips to fit lengthwise in the baking dish. Refrigerate the other half until needed.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Pour half the fruit mixture in the baking dish. Place the pastry strips on top of the fruit. Brush with about 1 tablespoon melted butter and sprinkle with half the remaining sugar. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until the pastry is lightly browned.

Remove the baking dish from the oven. Spoon the rest of the fruit mixture over the baked pastry. Cut the remaining half of the dough into strips to fit crosswise in the pan, laying them over the fruit in the opposite direction of the first pastry layer. Brush with the remaining butter and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake about 25 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve warm, if possible. Yields about 6 servings.

Homemade Blueberry Syrup

  • 2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup

Place the blueberries and 1/4 cup water in a blender and purée. Pour the mixture into a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup water and the sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat and simmer 8 to 10 minutes until translucent. Strain into a bowl, discarding the skin and solids. Whisk in the corn syrup. Cover and store in the refrigerator. Reheat the syrup before serving.

Strawberry Shortcake Sauce

  • 2 cups strawberries
  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk

Rinse the strawberries and pat dry. Remove the green tops and discard. Cut the berries into thin slices. Place in a mixing bowl and gradually add the milk, stirring gently to coat the berries. Add enough milk to create a sauce, without it becoming too runny. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. To serve, spoon the strawberry sauce over shortcake cups or pound cake and top with sweetened whipped cream.

Sidney Carlisle lives on a ranch in Meridian, Texas.