Bountiful Blueberries

The Baltimore Sun

A series to help you cook with the bounty of the season.

It's blueberry season, a time for filling pails and pie shells.

From now until the first week in August, home cooks can visit farms in just about every county of Maryland and load their buckets with blueberries for about $2 a pound. Or, if you are Carol Kressen of Ellicott City, you can step into your yard, where a half-dozen blueberry bushes planted by the home's previous owner produce more blueberries than your three children can eat - or sell.

"The first year, we picked about 48 quarts before I stopped counting," said Kressen, whose favorite way to make use of the blueberries is in a pie recipe she adapted from The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

"I served it once at a dinner party to a guest who loved it and then admitted that he didn't even like blueberries."

Her youngest, Melissa, 5, eats the blueberries as fast as she picks them from the branches that hang just above her head. The bushes are covered with netting that keeps greedy birds away.

Kressen's twins, Kathleen and Joey, 7, often open up a stand at the end of the driveway and sell cups full of the blue-gray berries for 25 cents each.

"People get halfway down the street and come back for more," said the mother of the entrepreneurs.

Terry Freed of Garden of Eden Orchards in Salisbury sells blueberries, too. But he has more than six bushes in his backyard. He has 6,000.

"It is a fun crop to grow in your backyard," he said. "They take little or no spraying. The only thing with blueberries is that the birds love them."

Birds can make a serious dent in the production of a single mature bush, which might yield 10 quarts a year.

"My mother came down from Massachusetts," said Kressen, who thinks her bushes might be about 25 years old. "And we'd picked about six quarts in an hour. There were so many and it was so hot, I finally said, 'Mom. Enough.' Sometimes you just have to walk away," said Kressen.

Blueberries aren't just for muffins or pies anymore. They are for soups, salads, salsas and sauces. Cooks are finding savory recipes for this bountiful crop. Kressen sprinkles blueberries on salads and even created a blueberry vinaigrette in addition to jams and pies.

"And I freeze a lot of them," she said.

Cookbook author Linda Dannenberg produced a whole batch of recipes that use blueberries in ways you might not have considered: butter, borscht and barbecue sauce among them. She even offers a recipe for a blueberry martini in her book, True Blueberry : Delicious Recipes for Every Meal," written after she began to see blueberries used in savory recipes during her travels in France and in the Caribbean.

"I love blueberries myself and I never found enough recipes to use all the blueberries I bought in the summer," said Dannenberg from her home in Westchester County, N.Y.

Of all the recipes in the book, the one for blueberry steak sauce was the biggest hit. "I had a barbecue and invited my neighbors. They were blown away by it. They wanted me to bottle it," Dannenberg said.

It surprised Dannenberg how well the acid-sweetness of blueberries worked in savory recipes. "Their character changes when you add a little spice and a little heat."

Their versatility makes blueberries popular with gardeners.

Lauren Kitch of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville said the lawn and garden center sold out of blueberry bushes quickly this spring, and had to order more of the Jersey Blue, Blue Jay, Blue Crop and Blue Ray varieties, which are about 1 1/2 feet tall and sell for about $25 each.

These cultivars, which differ from wild blueberries in height and berry size, will produce berries in about three years. (The flowers should be pinched back the first two years to encourage root strength and growth.)

Although cross-pollination isn't required, it can produce bigger and more abundant berries, so casual growers, like Kitch, who has eight bushes in her yard, should plant more than one.

"They are very easy to grow," said Kitch. "They like our acid soil."

Freed said the soil pH needs to be tested before planting and should be low, about 4.5. Add sulfur or aluminum sulfate if needed, he said.

"And you should plant them in well-drained soil," he said. "The plant doesn't like to sit in water, but it never wants to dry out, either."

Freed also suggests adding organic matter to the soil when planting blueberry bushes - peat moss or compost.

It is important to cover the bushes with netting, or the birds will beat you to your harvest. But consider that the birds also can get caught in that netting, as can some other unwelcome visitors. Kressen's husband, Parker, untangled a pair of very large rat snakes last year.

The blueberries available at you-pick-'em farms and for planting in your own yard are the Northern high bush variety, which grow as tall as 7 feet.

Wild blueberries - for which Maine and Michigan are so famous - can be found on the Delmarva Peninsula, too, Freed said. The bushes are low and scruffy-looking and the berries are smaller, but very flavorful.

Blueberries, once called starberries because their tops resembled a five-point star, are native to North America. The Indians, who used them for medicinal purposes as well as for eating, shared them with the colonists, who dried them and used them to replace the currants of which they were so fond.

As it happens, the Indians were onto something. Food scientists have attributed to blueberries a variety of health benefits. They have shown themselves to be of more antioxidant - anti-cancer - benefit than 40 other commercially available fruits and vegetables, according to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Blueberries also reduce inflammation and are, therefore, good for joint pain. They prevent bacteria from adhering to the walls of the bladder, preventing urinary tract infections as well or better than cranberries.

Blueberries promote heart health by reducing bad cholesterol. And the British night pilots who used to gulp blueberries during World War II may have been right - blueberries appear to reduce macular degeneration and improve night vision.

Blueberries are also a good source for fiber (and are good for irregularity), vitamins A and C, niacin and iron.

Low in calories - a cup is only 84 calories - blueberries are easy to consume: by the handful, over cereal, in a smoothie or over a salad.

But while blueberries may be plentiful and healthful, they don't work in everything, said Dannenberg.

"They didn't really work in chocolate chip ice cream."

susan.reimer@baltsun

Online

Find a blueberry pie recipe and a list of places to pick blueberries at baltimoresun.com/backyardharvest

Blueberry-Lime Salsa

Serves 6 to 8

1 small jalapeno

2 1/2 cups fresh blueberries (divided use)

1/2 small red onion

1/2 small red bell pepper, cored and seeded

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/2 cup loosely packed finely julienne fresh basil

1/3 cup loosely packed coarsely chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the broiler. Place the jalapeno under the broiler and char on all sides. Remove, place in a brown paper bag, close and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine 2 cups of the blueberries, the onion and red pepper. Process until the mixture is coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and add the lime juice and salt and stir to combine. Set aside.

Using a paper towel or rubber gloves to protect your skin if it is sensitive to hot peppers, trim the stem and peel off the skin of the jalapeno. Slice it in half, remove and discard the seeds (unless you like your salsa really hot), and finely chop the jalapeno. Add the jalapeno to the blueberry mixture, along with the basil, cilantro, the remaining 1/2 cup blueberries, the oil, ginger and several turns of the pepper mill, and stir well to combine.

Set aside for about 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend. Spoon a little bit over individual portions of grilled chicken, pork or duck, and serve the rest in a bowl, passed at the table.

From "True Blueberry: Delicious Recipes for Every Meal," by Linda Dannenberg

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 47 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 grams fat, trace saturated fat, 8 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 147 milligrams sodium

Savory Blueberry Steak Sauce

Serves 6 to 8

3 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine

2 small or 1 medium shallot, finely chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

1/4 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup molasses

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, or 3/4 teaspoon fresh, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dried sage, crushed

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute for 3 to 4 minutes, until the shallots are soft and translucent, but not browned.

Sprinkle in the flour, stir to blend and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to bubble.

Add the vinegar, ketchup, mustard, orange juice, molasses, thyme and sage and stir to combine.

Add the blueberries and stir to combine.

Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for about 15 minutes, until the mixture is thickened and glossy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cool, then transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree for 30 to 40 seconds, until very smooth. Serve warm in a sauceboat.

From "True Blueberry: Delicious Recipes for Every Meal," by Linda Dannenberg

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 111 calories, 1 gram protein, 4 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 18 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 134 milligrams sodium

BLUEBERRY TIP

*"Blue" berries actually have a light-gray sheen to them. That is a natural protectant. If there is even a hint of red on the berry, leave it on the bush for another day. It will not continue to ripen after harvesting.

*Stained or leaking berries mean the fruit is past its prime.

*When picking blueberries, grab a branch and hold it over the bucket. Gently rub the berries with your fingertips. Ripe berries will drop off easily, while unripe berries will remain attached to the bush.

*Do not seal the berries in a ziplock bag before chilling them. The warm, moist air in the bag will speed the deterioration of the berries.

*Store berries, unwashed, in a plastic container. They should last up to two weeks if freshly picked. Washing them will hasten deterioration. (Avoid blueberries that are exposed to mist sprayers.)

*Blueberries are easy to freeze. Place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet - unwashed - and freeze over night. Tumble the berries into a freezer bag or a plastic container. Frozen blueberries should keep for a year.

*When using frozen blueberries in baking, do not let the berries thaw beforehand. This will not only preserve their texture, but will also keep the blueberries from bleeding into the batter.

*A pint of blueberries is equal to 3/4 pound or 2 cups. A quart of blueberries makes 1 1/2 pounds or four cups.

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