These blues you don't chase away

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Some cooks will make a hot kitchen even hotter arguing the virtues of wild blueberries over the plumper, cultivated ones. The tiny ones grown in mountainous regions of North America have a sweeter, more intense flavor, they insist. But others, such as cookbook author Mark Bittman, say size doesn't make a plum of difference. "Don't fall for the 'tiny berries are best' line, he writes in his popular culinary bible "How to Cook Everything." Even Martha Stewart, in her "Pies & Tarts" doesn't favor one over the other. Most important, she instructs, is that they are fresh.

Aborn Breed, who has been picking berries right off the bush for most of her 98 years, agrees. During the Great Depression, she helped supplement her family's income by selling her homebaked cakes at the local women's exchange. One of the best sellers was a yellow layer cake dotted with deep indigo blueberries picked from the high-bush blueberries growing in her Lynn, Mass., backyard.

Her nephew has memories of New Year's Day breakfast when she would toss her own blueberries, frozen since the previous harvest, into Swedish pancakes. Reminded of those family celebrations, she says with a laugh, "Every time I see that old frying pan, I threaten to make them again."

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Of course, the appeal of blueberries goes back much further than Mrs. Breed's day. Long before the colonists arrived, native Americans ate them fresh, stewed, and dried. They baked them into cobblers, buckles, crisps, puddings, pies, and tarts.

And today, the North American blueberry industry is second only to strawberries among berry crops. The commercial crop averages more than 200 million pounds per year. American and Canadian growers export blueberries to Europe, Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, and during the winter months, New Zealand's crop keeps berry lovers from going without.

In Oregon, where the season runs from late June until mid-November, this year's crop has been the best ever. That's according to Mark Hurst of Hurst's Berry Farm in Sheridan, which has already sold a record crop of 25 million pounds to customers in the San Francisco area. Mr. Hurst and his wife started the farm in 1983 with an old van that held only 300 boxes of berries. Now they use a large truck that hauls 4,000 flats. He attributes this year's success to great weather, as well as publicity about the reputed health benefits of blueberries. He gushes that it's "wonderful to be a part of an agricultural industry where gloom and doom is not the theme."

Hurst's first choice is always to eat fresh blueberries right out of hand. Off-season, the next-best thing, he says, is "blueberry slush" - a refreshing blend of frozen blueberries and orange juice.

Every cook has a favorite way of preparing blueberries. Here are a couple of our favorites. If you aren't a "blues" fan already, they're sure to make you one.

BLUEBERRY TIPS:

Buying:

Look for firm, plump berries that are deep indigo blue.

Avoid overripe ones, which quickly turn to mush.

When buying a box of berries, turn it over to be sure there is no moisture on the bottom.

Preparing:

Pick over, and toss shriveled, moldy, mushy ones; remove stems. Put berries in a colander, dip into cool water, swish, lift out. Gently pat berries dry with paper towels.

Baking:

Gently stir in berries at the last minute so the skins don't break. Otherwise, they will "bleed" into the other ingredients as they bake.

Freezing:

Spread out unwashed blueberries in a single layer on a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap. Store them in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Remove from freezer, put blueberries in plastic containers, and freeze until needed. Frozen berries can be stored for up to two years.

Blueberry Muffins With Lemon or Lime Glaze

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2-1/2 cups blueberries

(including 1/2 cup mashed)

2 cups flour

1/2 cup milk

1 cup confectioner's sugar

2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice

Heat oven to 375 degrees F.

Heavily butter a 12-muffin pan.

In a medium-size bowl, beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and beat until mixture is pale and fluffy.

Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Beat until combined.

Fold the 1/2-cup mashed berries into mix. Fold in half the flour and half the milk. Repeat. Fold in whole berries.

Spoon batter into muffin cups; bake 25 to 30 minutes or until muffins spring up when tops are pressed down.

Cool in pan, then brush with Lemon Glaze.

For the glaze: Mix sifted confectioner's sugar with lemon or lime juice until smooth.

Blueberry Flummery

A flummery is any soft, easily eaten food.

1 quart blueberries (fresh or frozen)

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

8 slices quality white bread

Butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place berries in medium saucepan. Add sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Cover and cook 10 minutes.

Butter bread on both sides; trim crusts. Cut slices in quarters. Place a layer of bread in an ovenproof dish. Spoon on berries, then more bread. Continue, ending with berries. Bake 20 minutes. Serves 6.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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