Picking berries with my children is, for me, one of summer's quintessential pleasures. Even more than the strawberries that herald the beginning of the season, I look forward to blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries that ripen in the fullness of summer days.
Although we consumed a great many berries when we lived in Los Angeles, picking our own berries was one of the seasonal delights that our family discovered after moving East.
Even before we had moved into our new home, I eagerly took my eight-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to a local berry farm. I can still see the large flat box filled with raspberries and blackberries, perched next to the sink in the hotel room where we were living temporarily. Although we had enough berries for half a dozen pies, without an oven at our disposal, our only option was to eat the berries, sprinkled with sugar and splashed with milk, from paper bowls with plastic spoons - which we did quite happily.
A few weeks later in September, the children and I returned to the berry farm and collected enough end-of-the-season raspberries and blackberries to freeze for a winter's worth of berry muffins.
I love jam on muffins, but canning has always seemed such a daunting process that I have never attempted to make my own preserves. When we returned to the farm the following summer to pick more berries, I was thrilled to discover freezer jam, which can easily be made in half an hour with no special equipment. My children helped wash the plastic freezer boxes, measure the sugar, and vigorously crush the fruit. Best of all, this barely cooked jam, which keeps for a year in the freezer, tastes as fresh as a spoonful of summer.
At least once each year we head for the berry farm to restock the freezer for the frosty days ahead. But now that my children are older, they have less time for family rituals; I always go, lured by the promise of summer's bounty in the depths of winter.
Treat them gently
Berries should not be washed until just before you're ready to use them. Gentleness is the key to washing these delicate fruits without crushing or bruising. First sort the berries, then drop them by the handful into cool water, and quickly lift them out. Or put them into a sieve or plastic berry basket and then immerse briefly in a bowl of cold water. Turn the washed berries out on a soft towel to dry.
Berries are a snap to freeze: Place unwashed fruit in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet and put in the freezer overnight; then place in a freezer bag or box, leaving half an inch of headroom, and seal. The berries will keep for about a year. Frozen berries can be added directly to muffin batters or pie fillings without thawing, but you must prolong the cooking time by 10 to 15 minutes for pies, five to 10 minutes for muffins.
Frozen berries can be whirled in a food processor and sweetened with sugar or honey for instant sorbet or dropped into sparkling water as flavorful ice cubes.
The wild blueberries of North America were called "star berries" by some American Indian tribes because of the star-shaped calyx at the top of each berry.
Blueberries are one of only seven native North American food plants commercially cultivated on a large scale. Although blueberries grow in other parts of the globe, 95 percent of the world's commercial crop comes from North America.
Because the tiny wild blueberries generally hold their shape better during cooking than the large cultivated varieties, most of the wild blueberry crop is bought for commercial muffin and pancake mixes.
Raspberries, black raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries all belong to the rose family. Boysenberry, loganberry, youngberry, and tayberry are blackberry-raspberry crosses, while the marionberry and the ollalieberries are true blackberries. Black raspberries were, until recently, primarily used as a coloring agents; cuts of meat, for example, were stamped with this natural ink.
3 cups crushed blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries (about 1-1/2 quarts whole)
5-1/4 cups sugar
1 package powdered pectin
3/4 cup water
(If using blueberries, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
Sort and wash berries; drain. Crush with a potato masher. Stir sugar into fruit. Let stand 10 minutes.
Dissolve pectin in water in a saucepan. Stir constantly; bring to a full, rolling boil over high heat for one minute.
Stir pectin solution into fruit mixture and continue stirring for three minutes until sugar is completely dissolved. Immediately fill the plastic freezer containers, leaving half an inch at the top for expansion. Cover container and let stand at room temperature (no more than 70 degrees F.) for 24 hours or until jam has set, then refrigerate for immediate use or freeze for up to one year.
Makes four 8-ounce containers of jam.
This recipe, which makes a delicious breakfast treat, can also be made with blackberries or strawberries.
1 Grape Nuts Pie Crust (recipe below), or 9-inch, store-bought, baked graham-cracker pie crust
5 cups fresh raspberries
1/2 cup thawed, frozen-raspberry or cranberry juice concentrate
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
Prepare the pie crust and let cool. Mash two cups of fresh berries in a pot and pour in the fruit juice. In a separate bowl, whisk cornstarch into cold water and then pour into the mashed fruit. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes a thick, shiny glaze. Fill the pie crust with the remaining three cups of berries, then pour the glaze on top of the uncooked berries. Chill.
Grape Nuts Pie Crust
1-1/2 cups Grape Nuts cereal
3/4 cup frozen raspberry or cranberry juice concentrate
Mix juice with Grape Nuts and let stand for a few minutes until juice is absorbed. Press mixture into a buttered or nonstick 9-inch pie pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes or until lightly brown.