Baby Blues

This month's harvest brings antioxidant-packed blueberries.

The summer’s first bonanza of sweet, tart blueberries is on the way—the first harvest brightens local farmers’ markets later in the month. It’s also the start of the season in major blueberry-producing regions from Maine to Michigan (the latter is the country’s largest producer).

With different varieties ripening cyclically from late-June all the way through September, blueberry lovers can indulge for months on end. Since they keep longer than most summer berries—up to a week when stored well, unlike strawberries, which spoil within a day or two—it’s easy to keep a constant supply on hand.

For today’s abundance, thanks go to Elizabeth White, the daughter of a cranberry grower from Whitesbog, N.J., who helped to develop the first cultivated blueberry variety in 1916. Before that, bringing home a bucket of blueberries required a labor-intensive day of picking over spiky brambles. Of course, that didn’t stop Native Americans from enjoying the wild variety of the fruit, an indigenous plant that scientists believe dates back at least 13,000 years. Through clever preservation techniques, such as drying the fruit in the sun and grinding it into powder to flavor stew, porridge and meat, blueberries remained a part of the Native American diet all year long. The Indians here revered the fruit for its medicinal purposes, as did early Europeans, who used the fruit to make a tea to help women relax in childbirth and a syrup to cure coughs.
Today, the beneficial qualities of blueberries are not myth but fact—studies show that they’re packed with antioxidants, which combat free radicals and help protect against the development of cancer, heart disease and degenerating brain function. The rich flavor of blueberries certainly makes it easy to do something good for your health.

A classic addition to muffins and pancakes, blueberries also are delicious paired with other summer fruit, as in a cobbler with blueberries and ripe nectarines; even summer salads can benefit from a burst of blueberry flavor (see recipe below). There’s also the simple pleasure of eating them fresh—when you devour a handful of freshly picked blueberries, you know that summer is finally here.

U-Pick Berries

Later this month, you can pick as many blueberries as your fingers will let you at local farms and orchards.
• Soergel Orchards: Call ahead for pick-your-own blueberries. Homemade blueberry and blueberry-peach pies are sold in the bakery. 2573 Brandt School Road, Franklin Park; 724/935-1743, soergels.com.
• Trax Farms: Call ahead for specific times to pick-your-own blueberries throughout the growing season, from June through August. In season, the bakery offers homemade blueberry pies. 528 Trax Road, Union Township, Washington County; traxfarms.com.


Selecting and Storing Blueberries

• Seek out blueberries that are firm and smooth and have a skin with a silvery, waxy bloom. Color (not size) is a sign of maturity—look for deep purple-blue to blue-black berries (reddish berries aren’t ripe). The fruit doesn’t have much of a scent, but if you’re buying a basket of berries in the market, a quick sniff can help detect any sign of mold; juice stains on the container can indicate bruised fruit. Avoid berries that are shriveled or hard.
• As soon as you get blueberries home, refrigerate them in their original plastic pack or in a covered container. They generally keep up to a week in the refrigerator. To prepare, pull out any stems and rinse the berries in cold water just before using.
• Take advantage of summer’s bounty by freezing some fresh blueberries to use later in smoothies, pancakes or baked goods. To freeze, make sure the berries are completely dry and place them into re-sealable plastic bags in the freezer. Use within six months. They freeze individually, so it’s easy to take out whatever portion you need. Then simply rinse the berries just before using.

Salad with blueberry, feta and almonds:

This delicious fruit, cheese and nut salad is pretty enough to serve to guests, and makes a light but
satisfying summer lunch. Look for authentic Greek feta made with sheep’s milk, which is more flavorful than domestic types made with cow’s milk.

Rinse and dry the leaves from 1 head of butter lettuce and tear into bite-sized pieces. To make the vinaigrette, combine 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar and 1 teaspoon honey, then whisk in 1/3 cup of good-tasting olive oil. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Toast 1 cup of slivered blanched almonds until lightly browned. Crumble 1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) of sheep’s-milk feta cheese. Stem 1 cup of blueberries, rinse in cold water and dry well.
In a large salad bowl, toss the lettuce with 1/3 cup of the vinaigrette. Divide the salad among 4 large plates, and divide the toasted almonds, feta and fresh blueberries equally among them. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

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