Summer berries are a near-faultless food. They look like edible jewels and taste like vacation. They're low in calories, fat and sodium, and high in fiber and carbohydrates. Like gifts, they're a joy to give or receive. Indeed, it may be that the only thing wrong with berries is how woefully short-lived their season is.
Then again, this just means you can--and should--indulge with abandon. Early in the season you can feast on strawberries, with their cheerful blush and dulcet bite, but soon come other common types (as if any berry common can be called common): lush, elegant raspberries; taut-skinned blueberries; and blackberries, those dark gems of berry days.
For more unusual fruits seek out juneberries, which look like reddish blueberries but are firmer and have a lightly sweet, down-to-earth flavor, and mulberries, deep purple, knobby, and spurting with juice. Then there's gooseberries, the grape look-alikes that are tart as rhubarb, and thimbleberries, the color of sunrise and so fragile they turn to sauce at the touch of a finger.
Whether huckleberries or hackberries, Boysenberries or black caps, don't spoil all that plush wholesomeness with a toxic spray--get your berries pesticide-free. (Did you know that strawberries are typically on "the worst of" lists for pesticide content?) Your best bet is farmers’ markets, roadside stands and grocery stores that proudly offer "certified organic." These are places where you also can snack, er, taste before you buy, adding a bonus to your shopping.
Or, if you’re the do-it-yourself type, there’s berry pleasure to be had in a backyard raspberry patch, a pick-your-own strawberry farm, or a hike in the woods for a foraging adventure. (Wear long sleeves, bring a field guide, and feel good that wild berries are said to contain more antioxidants than their cultivated cousins.)
When you get your cache in the kitchen (if they make it that far), remember that moisture makes berries soggy and refrigeration dulls their flavor. Don't rinse berries until you have to and let them air-dry on paper towels. Serve them at room temperature, sprinkled, perhaps, with sugar or drizzled with honey. The pièce de résistance? A cap of whipped cream, vanilla yogurt or sour cream. Don’t be shy here: berries and dairy go together like twin souls, so swathe those seasonal sweeties with the freshest, purest dairy products available.
After you've had your fill of berries in a bowl, it's time for berry-studded desserts-- pastries, puddings, custards and cakes. You won't easily tire of using berries in as many ways as possible, but you will want to save some of the goodness for the cold months. No time or inclination for putting up jam? No problem. Most berries are easy to freeze: simply pack them in airproof plastic bags or containers (if you're using organic berries, there's no need to rinse and dry first). If you have enough space, spreading the berries on cookie sheets to quick-freeze before bagging them will help maintain firmness.
Later, you can ration thawed blackberries into yogurt or oatmeal, blend strawberries with reconstituted orange juice and yogurt, or substitute frozen berries for fresh in winter breakfast dishes and desserts.
For now, however, while berries color our meals and brighten our lives, get them fresh and get as many as you can.
Blueberry Stuffed Pastry Pillows - Deep-fried pastry puffs filled with juicy blueberries.
Cream-Glazed Blueberry Coffeecake – When is a coffeecake a dessert? When it's as rich and special as this one.
Gooseberry Fool – Nothing foolish about this chilled fruit sauce swirled with whipped cream. The contrast of tart and sweet, light and rich, velvety-smooth and textured with tiny seeds is simply stellar.
Summer Solstice Cobbler with Strawberries and Juneberries – Two early-season berries come together for a taste that's not one or the other, but something new and wonderful.
Blackberry Clafouti – Think of this French-style specialty as a cross between custard and cake (plus it's easier to make than either one).
Raspberries and Maple Cream - Could dessert be any simpler? Use the freshest, plumpest organic raspberries you can find or forage.
Mixed Berries with Gran Marnier Custard Sauce – Mix your berries and match them with an unctuous, orange-flavored custard sauce.
Blackberry Grunt - This colonial dish of berries topped with sweet dumplings is a wonderful summer dessert for it's prepared on top of the stove, not in the oven.
Strawberry Cream Cheese Torte with Chocolate Cookie Crust– Save some of that brief harvest by freezing your berries; juicy, thawed strawberries are ideal for this torte.
Hint-of-Lemon Angel Food Cake with Fresh Berries - When life gives you leftover egg whites, make angel food cake. Airy and impressive, it's a wonderful backdrop for organic berries and whipped cream.