A berry new dinner idea

Some chefs aren't saving berries just for dessert

Brad Levy incorporates oranges, lemons, limes, and pomegranates into his entrées. But in his 10 years as owner and chef of Firefly, a casual restaurant in San Francisco's Noe Valley, Mr. Levy has never once introduced a berry into a main dish. The reason: It has never occurred to him.

"It's not that I have anything against berries, I just haven't thought of using them [in entrées]," says Levy.

Even at restaurants known exclusively for their light fare, berries are often left out of main dishes, shunted aside on the kitchen counter like children not chosen for the school play.

Take San Francisco's Greens Restaurant, which caters to vegetarians, but never incorporates berries into its earthy and eclectic mix of main dishes.

Pies and sorbets, salads, jams, jellies, and thirst-quenching punches are more often the province of berries, a family of fleshy fruits that inherits its name from a lush and rolling section of central France, the historical province of Berry.

Ask restaurant chefs why they exclude berries from their chief creations, and most will point to the back of their menu. Berries, particularly during the summer, are often relied on to sweeten and brighten desserts from vanilla ice cream to shortcake to pies. And many chefs are loath to spread their berries too thin.

"We use a lot of berries at the end of the meal, so we try to save them," says Alice Waters, owner of the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.

But berries can also be a risky addition to main dishes. They have a strong taste that can often overwhelm a meal's essential flavors.

"They don't marry in well," says Ms. Waters. "Some will stick out as too tart or too sweet." In place of berries, she often uses figs.

Western cooks have traditionally separated fruits from vegetables in almost every stage of the meal, says David Hirsch, co-owner and chef of the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. "In Southeast Asia, there tends to be a greater mix of fruits and vegetables in entrées and soups."

Still, more and more chefs are tinkering with berries in classic main-dish recipes, especially during the summer months, when berries can be plucked from local fields within hours of cooking with them.

At the Moosewood, Mr. Hirsch and his colleagues make a salsa with strawberries or raspberries as a complement to main dishes that might otherwise taste bland, such as grilled fish, stuffed eggplant, or a bean, corn, and cheese casserole. (See recipe below.)

Hirsch says the berries' sweetness and acidity give these dishes a tangy flavor. With more strongly flavored foods, they would probably conflict too much with the dominant tastes.

Cindy Pawlcyn, owner and chef of Mustard's Grill in Napa, Calif., often creates sauces from blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, which she spreads on a variety of poultry, such as grouse, quail, and squab.

Each bird has a rich, meaty flavor that stands up to the berries' sweetness, says Ms. Pawlcyn. She also uses berries on pork loin, and is currently serving risotto with a strawberry vinaigrette.

"I have a garden here, and I always am inspired to cook with what's grown around me during the season," she says.

So is Dan Pogue of Temple Bar in Cambridge, Mass. He cooks seared scallops with raspberries, and squab with blackberries or boysenberries during the summer months.

As with most cooking, preferences for different kinds of berries depend on the individual chef's own tastes. Waters limits her use of berries to the summer. The only berry-based dishes she makes are grilled quail with a glaze of red currants, and duck with a sauce of loganberries.

Both recipes meet her most essential criteria. "We use berries as long as we can maintain a critical balance of sweet and savory," says Waters.

Fruit Salsa

This salsa is at once tart, sweet, and spicy. It makes a delicious seasonal pairing with grilled chicken, fish, or eggplant.

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (canola or other mild oil)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 small fresh jalapeño pepper seeded and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sliced strawberries, raspberries, or a combination of both
1 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

Whisk together all the ingredients except the berries and sugar. Add the berries, taste and adjust sugar if desired. Allow to sit for 20 minutes so the flavors will blend. Serve at room temperature and store chilled.

- Adapted from a recipe in 'Moosewood Restaurant New Classics' (Moosewood Inc., Clarkson Potter Publishers)

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