Berry Season

Summer’s heat is upon us, with temperatures climbing towards the 90’s, and with the heat comes the season of the berry. Blueberries and black raspberries are the first out of the gate in early July, changing almost overnight from pale green and rose to deep blue and black, respectively.

Wild black raspberries are one of my favorite summer treats. Of all the things I forage for in the wild, these luscious gems are a truly one of my favorites. Sweet yet tart, they are best eaten right away, or as soon as you can get them home and into a bowl of cream. They are very delicate and don’t hold up well to storage, unless you plan to freeze them. If you intend to make anything other than jam with the frozen ones, it’s best to freeze them in a single layer on a sheet. Otherwise they will end up as juice in a bag.

Picking black raspberries is no picnic, as they say, and this is one treat you have to work for. They mostly grow along hedgerows and by the sides of dirt roads, and are often laced with stinging nettle and Multi-flora rose brambles, neither of which feels good on bare skin. They like shade and the first ones to ripen are often under other plants. Plan your berry picking foray to include boots and long pants, as well as a wide brimmed hat to protect against the ever present gnats. A long sleeved shirt and some bug repellent go a long way toward making it a pleasant experience. Berries ripen over time, so if you want any quantity for jam or jelly, plan on picking every two days while they are in season.

Picking fresh blueberries is somewhat easier, especially if you have a well tended patch, as we do. I was just in the nick of time in getting mine covered against the birds this summer, as the day after I put up the netting they began to turn blue. Experience has taught me that the berries I deem to be “almost ripe” are perfectly edible to the host of birds hovering just over my shoulder waiting for me to leave. We have lost entire crops of the succulent morsels by waiting one too many days to put up the nets. The protective tent only helps so much though; almost every day I shoo out a hungry fellow that has managed to find a hole or sneak under.

Blueberries are very easy to maintain. They don’t require spraying and are not bothered by pests. They need little pruning and seem to winter well. We have not had any problems with the deer eating them. Harvest seems to depend more on the weather than any other factor and this year they are ripening early. Ours have grown slowly over time, but are abundant producers and we average about 5 gallons a year from 10 bushes. Pie, and more pie, is our first choice for stored berries, especially in the winter months. They freeze well, but I can’t tell you how long they keep because they don’t last long!

Berries are one of natures super-foods, and wild berries even more so. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, they not only taste delicious but are really good for you. Everyone should save a spot in their garden for a blueberry bush or two, and if you don’t have a garden, try growing them in pots. It’s well worth the effort, for your taste buds as well as your health.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

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June is here and delights are beginning to come in from the garden.  Among the radish and peas, the lettuces and green onion are the strawberries, the most wonderful of all fruits and the one that really makes it feel like summer .  Of all the berries, the strawberries are the earliest and, in my opinion, the tastiest.  At least I say that until early July, when the blueberries are ripening, and then early august when we taste the delectable raspberries and blackberries.  But for now we indulge in the sweet, tangy, indescribably yummy strawberry.

I have a small berry patch that I often think takes up too much real estate in my tiny kitchen garden.  Most of the year it looks stringy and sad, almost as if the plants are dead or dying, but not so.   Come May, out come the shoots and flowers that, ever so agonizingly slowly, turn into hard green fruits and then ripen into luscious berries.  I have everbearing plants, which means they produce fruit all summer, although not as prolifically as they do in June.  Come August, they are growing wild and trying to climb down the sides of the raised beds and into the paths.  They are so hearty and vigorous they can root into the deep pine chips I use as mulch on the pathways.  Each year I cut back the runners and plant some back into the bed in the bare spaces, replace some older plants, and reluctantly throw out the rest.  They are so hearty, in fact, that one year I ripped them all up and, not able to throw them out, kept them in a bag in my garage.  Then, regretting my decision, I replanted half of them back into another bed, where they took, and bore berries the same year.

As hearty as they are, strawberries are a funny plant.  They only produce for a few years, and will shoot out runners that can overtake the garden rapidly.  They use an enormous amount of nutrients and therefore should be moved every 3 years or so to a different spot in the garden. They are best heavily mulched, which both keeps the berries out of the mud,and protects the crowns from cold.  They like water, but not too much, and must be in well draining soil.  Weather will affect the crop and determine ripening times; with warmth and abundant sunshine they ripen quickly, rain and clouds cause some delay.  Some varieties do well in containers, and are a good choice for those with not much space, but they must be watered regularly.

Besides eating them fresh on granola or yogurt, one of our favorite things to do with berries is to make ice cream.  Following is a simple and delicious recipe that can’t be beat.  Image

1 pint fresh berries

1 1/2 cups cream, divided

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

Wash and crush the berries with a potato masher until pulpy.

Heat 1 cup cream in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form on the sides of the pan.

Mix together egg yolks 1/2 cup cream, and sugar in a medium bowl

Add the hot cream to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, and then return the mixture to the pan.  Over medium low heat, whisk the mixture until it becomes thickened, 5-10 minutes.  DO NOT BOIL.  Allow the mixture to cool completely.

When custard is cool, add to an ice cream churn and follow the manufacturer’s directions.  YUM!