Blueberries. The name carries with it such an association with summer, especially in certain parts of the country. I happened to have enjoyed a childhood living in a blueberrry-producing state (New Jersey) and vacationing for several wonderful summers in another (Maine). My childhood memories of the heat of the summer are colored blue: Augusts spent picking wild blueberries near the coast in Maine, stained tiny fingers nimbly plucking the small inky orbs from the low bushes. In Rockport and Camden and the surrounding areas of rocky coves and brambly pine forests, it seemed like everything was all about wild blueberries. We started the day with the sweet, miniature berries in and on our pancakes, they perfumed our locally-milled soaps at bath time, and they found their way into our lemonade, our ice cream, fudge, and cakes after dinners. Wild blueberries are still one of my favorite fruits in the world.
Back in New Jersey, sometimes dinners on particularly sweltering summer evenings were comprised of nothing more than a simple bowl of "berries 'n cream," as my father referred to it. This was what I now consider to be an inexpensive, cold meal, possibly with Eastern European roots, that requires no turning on the stove nor much of an ingredient list. As a kid, it just seemed heavenly -- it was something of an illicit meal, kind of like how breakfast-for-dinner always seems like you're flouting the rules. We'd put berries in a soup bowl -- often blueberries -- and top them with a couple of dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkling of sugar on top. We'd mix, and spoon the concoction straight into our mouths. It also got us back outside with a quick turnaround: the fireflies weren't going to catch themselves!
Blueberries: the name is so simple. Self-explanatory. Basic. But the berry itself is anything but simple or basic. It's a tiny berry that packs a lot of flavor, nutritional value, and antioxidant content along with its deep pigmentation. These things are linked, by the way. It's the anthocyanin in the blueberries that gives the berries both their color and their health benefits. They're high in soluble fiber. This means they slow the uptake of glucose, making them a fruit helpful in maintaining healthy blood sugar, and also helps lower cholesterol. These little berries are antioxidant bombs, in the best way, helping to support heart and skin health, bone strength, and fight against cancer. And they're high in vitamins C and K as well as the mineral manganese.
Blueberries: they are as American as a berry gets. They are a berry in the Vaccinium family which also includes cranberries, bilberries, huckleberries, and Madeira blueberries. We enjoy two main types of blueberries in this country, both of which are native: "lowbush" blueberries are the ones dubbed "wild", and the "highbush" blueberries are the cultivated, larger berries found in most farmer's markets and grocery stores nationwide. The highbush blueberries were introduced to Europe as recently as the 1930's. (Most of the blueberries you find overseas are a relative of our native berries, most likely huckleberries or whortleberries or bilberries). Commercially sold blueberries are species that are native to eastern and north-central North America. The bulk of U.S. blueberry (highbush) harvesting happens in Oregon (number one with 131 million pounds in 2018), followed by Washington, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina. Maine produces the bulk of wild blueberries -- the official fruit of Maine -- and British Columbia produces the bulk from Canada. Overseas, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Germany, France, and Spain have gotten in the blueberry game as well. Hammonton, New Jersey claims to be the "Blueberry Capital of the World" and the town hosts a popular festival every year to celebrate the berry. In fact, Hammonton boasts 80% of New Jersey's total blueberry production. And another fun fact: North America dominates the world stage in blueberry production (596,813 tonnes in 2017), with the U.S. contributing 40% of total worldwide production, and Canada with 27%.
Blueberries: they're as versatile a fruit as you can get. They're great out-of-hand, of course. But they're wonderful cooked down into sauces, purées, dressings, jams and jellies. They make a wonderful bbq sauce (I've made ribs with blueberries in the sauce, and my husband waxes poetic about a rib joint in Asheville NC that makes blueberry-chipotle ribs). I like to pickle blueberries every summer, as they're a great addition to cheese and salumi platters, salads, and even a fresh corn soup I make with basil oil and pickled blueberries. Sweetgreens makes a summer salad with arugula and kale, jerk chicken thighs, goat cheese, onion, sunflower seeds, and a spicy smoky blueberry dressing. I had it yesterday. It was pretty delicious. So blueberries are great on their own, and in savory preparations as well.
We already know how great blueberries are for breakfast, whether in a bowl or topping cereal or granola or yogurt, in a muffin or in pancakes (and the syrup!), in a coffee cake or in a pie. And now we're getting to desserts. Blueberries shine here too. Blueberry ice cream, pudding, mousse...blueberries in cakes and pies and anything containing lemon...candies and syrups and infusions and I could go on and on. The photo above is of a dessert of which I'm very proud. I made it for a client's dinner party out in the Hamptons, using wild Maine blueberries to make individual-sized blueberry galettes (free-form tarts) with cornmeal in the crust, homemade sweet corn ice cream, and basil gelée with a burnt marshmallow on a stick (an allusion to s'mores and childhood summers). I love the combination of blueberries, corn, and basil -- 3 distinct flavors, one fruit, one vegetable, one herb -- as they're all summer produce that loosely fit the mantra "what grows together goes together." And visually, I love their colors together too. Blueberry and corn is a classic combo, of course.
Top Southern toque and owner of McCready's in Charleston, South Carolina, Sean Brock, offered up the dessert pictured here on his menu: a frozen polenta (cornmeal) pudding with a corn tuile in a blueberry emulsion. It was delicious, of course. And the combination actually harks back to the time of the original colonies, when Native Americans instructed the pilgrims how to grow corn and blueberries, two early native crops in America. Blueberries were even used as a natural stain for textiles and garments. (If you've ever dropped blueberries on your shirt or a tablecloth, you know how effective a coloring agent they can be).
Blueberries. However you eat them, from the simple handful to the most elaborate preparation by the top savory and pastry chefs in the world, they're a summer treat and an American classic. Enjoy them while they're at their peak. Just be careful if you're wearing summer white!