Tangy or sweet, often with a hint of sun-warmed dusty earth mingling with hints of sweet, winey dark fruits and fragrant florals, berries capture the essence of summer. There’s nothing quite like that smell that rises from a blackberry patch or a central Otago country lane in the intense heat of a summer’s day.
Berries are our antioxidant friends, filled with flavonoids, anthocyanins and phenolics, and loaded with vitamin C, helping repair the damage that the modern world thrusts upon us. Blackcurrants have the highest level of antioxidant activity, even more so than red and white currants.
Some of my favourite ways to serve berries? Whizz them in a smoothie, turn them into ice cream, bake with them, make them into jam or add them into sweet or savoury sauces. Pickle them for condiments or infuse them in vodka or gin for exquisite cocktails.
And then there are all the berry recipes for pancakes and waffles, coulis and compotes, layered cakes, shortcakes and cheesecakes, cobblers and crisps, parfaits and pavlovas, tortes and tarts, salsas and salads. Phew! However, sometimes sitting in a peaceful spot and scoffing a punnet of just-washed raw berries on your own is the simplest, most delicious way to enjoy them.
That brings me to the first contentious issue regarding berries. As with apples, plums and nectarines, berries must be washed before eating, but wash soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries just before serving. Immerse the berries in a bowl of water, gently shake off the excess water, then dry off with paper towels. Raspberries are more problematic if they have had the cores removed as the cavities fill with water; drain upside down on paper towels. Blueberries, cranberries, currants and berries with ‘skin’ fare much better.
When soft berries are stacked one on top of the other, as in punnets, moisture and warmth encourage mould to grow – hence not washing them until just before serving. Remove soft berries from punnets and spread on a tray lined with paper towels and refrigerate. They will stay fresher for longer.
Sprinkling icing sugar over soft berries will help them keep for a few extra days, but this isn’t suitable for strawberries. Most berries freeze well too – again, not so for strawberries – so you can buy them at their peak, usually when they’re also at their cheapest, and store for later use. Blueberries freeze especially well so once you discover a source of gorgeously tangy blueberries (many are flat and flabby), freeze in punnets. Be careful mixing frozen blueberries through muffins or cake batters as they can turn the mix a rather vivid purple.
So why not just buy frozen berries in the first place? Most frozen berries in New Zealand are a ‘mix of local and imported product’. And they are often frosty rather than free-flow, or frozen in clumps, especially if you buy them from your local dairy where they are stored in small over-worked largely uncovered chest freezers.
So, health and reasons to eat them? Tick. To wash or not? Tick. Storage tips? Tick.
Whether you want to make turkey and blueberry tacos, or strawberry and feta pizza is over to you, but see below for a few combinations that might just stretch your imagination. All most certainly have
Five Ways with Berries
1 Make chutney with chopped strawberries, red chilli, red onion, coriander, lime juice and whizzed kaffir lime leaves. Serve with barbecued chicken thighs.
2 Make a salad with cos, sliced avocado, sliced strawberries and a raspberry vinegar and walnut oil dressing. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Serve with tempura-battered vegetables, roasted quail or poussin or vege fritters.
3 Sizzle sliced peach wedges in butter, adding fresh tarragon when golden. Add soft raspberries to the pan, squish a little and pour everything over a still-warm carved roast chicken on a bed of lettuce. Scatter with edible flower petals and serve.
4 Beetroot, raspberries and goat’s cheese… so good together. Roast the beetroot and make a balsamic and raspberry dressing using crushed, sieved berries. Arrange the beetroot and goat’s cheese on salad greens, including baby nasturtium leaves, add raspberries and drizzle with dressing. Top with pan-fried capers before serving.
5 Make a quinoa salad with baked feta (slice thinly and bake on high until golden), pistachios, toasted almonds, basil and baby mint leaves, chives and chopped preserved lemon. Dress with a tangy vinaigrette (mustard, tarragon and vinegar) and scatter with raspberries, strawberries and blueberries to taste.