Black, blue or red – these berries are all delicious

These refreshing pops blend blackberrries with some culinary sage.
These refreshing pops blend blackberrries with some culinary sage. For The Washington Post

In summer, it’s all about the berries.

Black, blue or red, these little gems are powerhouses of flavor and nutrition in compact (and portable) packages. During warm months, they’re abundantly available at farmers markets and in an ever-growing assortment of varieties.

And with increased interest in healthy eating, berries have never been more popular. Now available year-round, California strawberries alone account for $2.6 billion in U.S. sales, followed by seasonal blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Part of that boost in popularity comes from berries’ healthy image as a “super food.” A recent international conference hosted by the North Carolina Research Center, which has been conducting extensive studies of berries’ benefits, provided more evidence of their positive impact. Phytochemical content in berries can improve cognition, strengthen the immune system and control inflammation as well as boost athletic performance and exercise recovery.

Plus they taste good.

The trick is matching the right berry with the right dish, melding bright and assertive berry flavors – from a single variety or in combination – with other ingredients. It helps to know your berries before you start mixing them.

▪ Strawberries rank as the most popular and easily recognized berry. They’re also most likely California grown, with almost 40,000 acres devoted to the fruit. That adds up to more than 2.3 billion pounds a year of California strawberries, or 88 percent of the nation’s fresh or frozen strawberry supply.

In summer, our strawberries come from Salinas and Watsonville, where farms account for half of the state’s strawberry acreage.

Compared to other berries, strawberries have a relatively high water content, which makes them lower in calories (great news for snackers) but also mushy when cooked. Their red color may leak in baked goods, turning dough or batter pink.

▪ Blueberries are enjoying a global boom, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which pegs worldwide production of this native American fruit at 1.45 billion pounds by 2017. As their name implies, highbush varieties tend to be taller – up to 13 feet – and are favored for commercial production. Lowbush varieties, which grow wild in Northeastern states, hug the ground.

Blueberries need extended periods of cold nights below 45 degrees to develop good fruit. Recent hybrids have allowed blueberry production to expand into warmer climes including California’s Central Valley, which has seen many acres converted to blueberry production over the past decade.

Triple-digit temperatures cut short the local blueberry harvest in June. But blueberries from cooler growing regions (such as Washington state) are still available in supermarkets. Blueberries hold their shape when cooked or frozen but may bleed blue into the final product.

▪ Blueberries are closely related to two other all-American berries: huckleberries and cranberries.

Huckleberries usually look like small, dark purple-to-almost-black blueberries. In forests near the coast (including Contra Costa County’s Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve), shade-loving California huckleberries grow wild, ripening in late summer and early fall. Other Western varieties are cultivated, particularly in the Northwest. A favorite of Native Americans, huckleberries contain at least 15 antioxidants.

While some varieties are sweet, others have a puckery tartness that can be overwhelming when eaten fresh. Huckleberries are best cooked (with sugar) in baked goods or jams and jellies. Although they look darker than blueberries, they tend to turn baked goods green, not blue.

Cranberries, best known for their relish role next to Thanksgiving turkey, are native to Northeastern states, where they have been cultivated since 1816. Some cranberry vines are more than 150 years old. As early as 1620, the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts ate wild cranberries.

▪ Cane berries are in a class by themselves. Traditionally, this group includes blackberries and raspberries as well as crosses such as boysenberries and olallieberries. Each berry is considered an “aggregate fruit,” clusters of little juice-filled sacs called “drupelets” that are individual fruits with single seeds inside. The drupelets are held together by microscopic hairs.

Blackberries have a central core to hold the berry’s shape while ripening. Raspberries – which may be red, purple, black or gold – are hollow and form a thimble shape. That also makes raspberries particularly fragile.

Several varieties of blackberry grow wild in California including the Pacific blackberry or dewberry, a favorite food for bears. (Its botanical name, Rubus ursinus, means “bear bramble.”) This wild species or its cultivars are the parent or grandparent of several other berries including loganberry, boysenberry and marionberry.

Most of the blackberry brambles that grow wild along Sacramento-area rivers and waterways are actually Himalayan blackberries, a misnamed invasive species native to Armenia and introduced to California circa 1885. Originally marketed to farmers as “Himalayan Giant,” these blackberries are bigger than their California cousins and the vines more vigorous. But with the help of birds, this species escaped cultivation into the wild, where it often squeezes out native blackberries.

Several berry cultivars trace back to California farmers who experimented with crossing various cane berries to create the namesake fruit. In 1881, Santa Cruz judge James Logan accidentally crossed red raspberries with a California blackberry to create the loganberry. Napa’s Rudolph Boysen crossed the loganberry with the American dewberry and two European berries to create the boysenberry, made famous by Walter Knott at his Buena Park berry farm.

Olallieberries, originally grown by Oregon State University, is a hybrid blackberry developed by crossing loganberry and youngberry (another red raspberry-blackberry cross). Its catchy name is actually repetitive; “olallie” means “berry” in Chinook. But this luscious fruit is “berry berry” good.

Also developed by Oregon State, marionberries are a cross of olallieberries and another variety of blackberry. Named for Marion County in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, marionberries have been nicknamed the “Cabernet of blackberries” because of their intense flavor. They’re now the most common blackberry in commercial production.

Regardless of their names or parentage, all these blackberry variations are virtually interchangeable in recipes, but their seasons are short and sweet. Look for them at farmers markets through August.

Debbie Arrington: 916 -321 -1075, @debarrington

Mixed berry shortcakes

Serves 8

This recipe is a mixed-berry version of a summer favorite: strawberry shortcake. Simple tweaks make it better for you and add delightful taste dimension. The tender-inside, crisp-outside biscuits are made with a blend of whole grain and all-purpose flours, and with oil instead of butter. Topping the berries is a blend of lightly sweetened, vanilla-scented whipped cream and Greek yogurt; the latter adds a pleasant hint of tartness.

Make ahead: The honeyed berries need to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

From nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger.

For berries and topping:

1 pound mixed berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and/or strawberries

1 tablespoon honey

1/3 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1/3 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the biscuits:

1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour or regular whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup well-shaken low-fat buttermilk

1/4 cup canola or other neutral-tasting oil

For the berries and topping: Wash the berries and hull any strawberries. Halve or quarter any large berries, then place the berries in a large bowl. Drizzle with the honey, then toss to combine. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to serve, for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Pour the cream into the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium-high speed until thickened, then add the confectioners’ sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form. Gently fold in the yogurt and vanilla extract. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 1 day in advance).

For the biscuits: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Let the berries come to room temperature. Whisk together the flours, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk and oil in a separate medium bowl. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture, stirring just until moistened; do not overmix.

Drop the batter in 8 mounds (about 3 tablespoons each) onto the baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Let the biscuits cool slightly. To serve, use a serrated knife to gently cut the biscuits in half horizontally. Place each bottom half on a plate, top each with about 1/3 cup of the berries and their accumulated juices, and a dollop of whipped topping. Cap with the top halves of the biscuits and serve.

Lavender pom-berry sorbet

Serves 8

Lavender has a great affinity for blackberries, blueberries, pomegranate and honey. The honey not only rounds out the flavor but helps keep the sorbet texture smooth.

Make ahead: The berry -juice mixture needs to infuse for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. The sorbet needs to firm up in the freezer for at least 1 hour before serving, and it can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.

2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted blackberries, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/4 cups pure bottled pomegranate-blueberry juice, plus more as needed

6 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup clover honey, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh culinary lavender spikes (bloom heads) or 1 tablespoon dried culinary lavender buds

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

Thoroughly stir together the blackberries, water, pomegranate-blueberry juice, sugar and honey in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium -high heat, stirring. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently, and cook until the berries are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the lavender and lime juice, then remove from the heat.

Taste, and thoroughly stir in a little more honey, as needed. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour (fresh lavender will infuse much more quickly than dried buds). Taste; if the lavender flavor is pronounced enough, strain the mixture through a sieve into a 4-cup measure. Press down with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. For more intense lavender flavor, refrigerate, tasting occasionally, for up to 3 hours before straining.

Stir enough additional pomegranate-blueberry juice into the measure to yield a generous 3 3/4 cups. Refrigerate, covered, until well chilled.

Pre-chill a storage container to hold the finished sorbet. Process the mixture in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer's directions. Immediately put the sorbet in the chilled freezer container and freeze until firm, at least 1 hour, before serving. Freeze for up to 2 weeks.

Per 1/2 -cup serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 37 g carb., 0 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 34 g sugar

Berry wine syrup

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes: about 2/3 cup

Seedless berry jam adds the berry flavor to red wine. Try this on crepes filled with lightly sweetened whipped ricotta. Make a double recipe; the syrup keeps 2 weeks or more.

1 cup fruity red wine, such as pinot noir

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup best quality seedless berry jam or jelly (elderberry jelly is good)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pinch cinnamon, optional

Put wine, sugar and jam into a small saucepan. Heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until mixture has reduced enough to make a thin syrup, about 20 minutes. Cool.

Stir in lemon juice and cinnamon. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature.

Wheat berry/berry salad

Prep time: 35 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/4 hours

Serves 6 as a main course, 8 to 10 as side dish

The vinaigrette here also is delicious on fresh spinach salad . It keeps in the refrigerator for several days; the strawberry slices will soften considerably.

For a gluten-free salad, use sorghum. For faster salad options, substitute pearled farro or quinoa and cook according to package directions in about 15 minutes. Cracked wheat (bulgur) soaks to tenderness (no need to cook) in about 30 minutes. Leftover salad will keep refrigerated for several days; add the toasted nuts just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

For berry purée:

3 cups (about 12 ounces) assorted clean fresh berries

For pink berry vinaigrette:

1/3 cup fruity olive oil

2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh berry purée, above

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 cups thinly sliced hulled small strawberries

For salad:

2 cups wheat berries

6 cups vegetable broth or water


1 cup walnut pieces

Pink berry vinaigrette (above), to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 cups thinly sliced hulled small strawberries

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or thinly sliced green onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves

Butter lettuce or small romaine lettuce leaves

6 ounces crumbled goat cheese (or feta or queso fresco)

Berry wine syrup (see recipe at left, or use balsamic glaze)

Chive blossoms or mint sprigs

Make purée: In a blender, purée the berries smooth. Push purée through a fine mesh strainer into a freezer container. Makes about 1 1/2 cups purée. Sweeten with agave syrup, if you like.

Make vinaigrette: Put oil, lime juice, vinegar and mustard into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Add the berry purée, salt and pepper. Shake well. Add the strawberries. Let macerate 15 minutes or so before using.

Make salad: Put wheat berries, broth and 1/4 teaspoon salt into a heavy saucepan. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover the pan tightly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until wheat berries are pleasantly chewy, 60 to 70 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool.

Meanwhile, put walnuts into a small dry skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until nuts are aromatic and a bit toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool, then chop roughly.

Strain the wheat berries in a wire-mesh strainer or a colander. Put wheat berries in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette to taste. Toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently fold in strawberries, chives and mint.

To serve, line salad plates with the lettuce leaves. Spoon wheat berry mixture onto the lettuce. Top with the cheese and walnuts. Drizzle with syrup, if using. Garnish with chive blossoms or mint.

Blackberry sage pops

Makes 6 pops

Note: If your sage leaves come from the garden, be sure to rinse them thoroughly so they’re free of grit. You’ll need 6 frozen-pop molds or sticks and small, freezable cups. This recipe must be prepared in advance.

From Ellie Krieger.

1/3 cup packed fresh sage leaves

3/4 cup boiling water

1/4 cup honey

3 1/2 cups (12 ounces) fresh or frozen blackberries

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

Place the sage leaves in a small bowl or mug and pour the boiling water over them. Use a wooden spoon to muddle (mash) the leaves slightly, then let steep for 3 minutes. Discard the leaves; stir in the honey until it has dissolved. Combine the blackberries, the honey-sage water and the lemon juice in a blender; purée until smooth.

Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, stirring and pressing with a spatula to extract as much liquid as possible. You should wind up with about 2 cups of strained purée. Discard the solids. Divide the blackberry purée among 6 pop molds. Insert a wooden stick into each and place in the freezer for at least 5 hours.

Per serving: 70 calories; 0 g fat; 0 mg sodium; 17 g carb.; 14 mg total sugars; 0 g protein; 0 mg cholesterol; 3 g dietary fiber

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