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May, 2008

Have A Berry Good Summer

By Dennis Linden
Berry lovers rejoice! Like a famous song almost says, “It’s summertime and the berries are easy!” In fact, June’s warm weather and long days brings with it an explosion of colorful retail berry displays, offering these succulent packets of health in all kinds of shapes, sizes and delectable flavors.

For the next few months, strawberries and red raspberries are peaking in production and sweetness from California’s central coast, the most prolific berry-growing region in the world. Agriculturists have also responded to the increase in popularity of blueberries with new strains that are much larger than normal, as well as heat resistant. This has expanded this berry’s growing area into some southern latitudes where the fruit now flourishes commercially in May and June before transitioning into its more traditional Pacific Northwest habitat.

Sprinkled into this abundance are also some of the more seasonal and location-specific varieties, including tender blackberries, petite red currants, hearty, striped green gooseberries, as well as the sweet-tart flavors of golden, purple and black raspberries. A few lucky consumers are also able to enjoy the more delicate hybrids like the dark red loganberry and the full-bodied boysenberry. Hybrid berries are very perishable, so they are only able to survive the shortest of trips to local retail outlets.

For those who need a nutritional excuse to treat your taste buds to such wonderful flavors for the next several months, berries have some of the highest antioxidant counts of all the fruit categories and also seems to help block cancer development. Anthocyanins are a group of antioxidants that give many berries their red color and have been shown to inhibit growth of lung, colon and leukemia cancer cells. Blueberries are packed with powerful antioxidants that inhibit development of both cancer and heart disease.

Here is a list of some of our favorite berries:

Blackberry - Tastes best when the glossy shine of the fruit becomes slightly dull. Flavor can be tart to sweet depending on ripeness.

Blueberry - A characteristic dusty film, called “bloom”, forms a natural waterproofing on the skin and is a sign of good quality. A new “super” variety is 2 to 3 times larger than regular berries. The fruit is crunchy and mildly sweet.

Boysenberry - This berry is a mix of blackberry, loganberry and raspberry. It is high in sugar content, so it ripens very quickly.

Currants – This small, round, glossy berry has an intense sweet-tart flavor. There is also a tart black variety used in sauces and baking.

Cape Gooseberry – This berry is best cooked with a sweetener added. Berries with a pinkish blush are a sign of being a little sweeter.

Loganberry - A cross between a raspberry and blackberry. The flavor is similar to the raspberry’s sweet-tartness, with a slightly more acidic aftertaste.

Raspberry – Mild tartness with a sweet finish. The golden variety has a subtle apricot-like taste and the darker, red-purple variety is the very essence of sweetness but is highly perishable.

Strawberry – This berry has a delicately sweet taste with a flowery fragrance, but is the only variety that does not get any sweeter after being picked. It is the most successful commercially; the whole world loves strawberries!

Of course all berries taste best when eaten fresh at the height of their sweetness, but it is also easy to extend the berry season into the dark winter months as all berries freeze whole quite nicely. Simply spread the berries out on a cookie sheet to freeze them individually before transferring to a container or freezer bag to avoid berries clumping together, which will make handling and measuring later much easier.

Berries are naturally sweet and require little preparation. Just rinse and serve them as is for a healthy and easy snack or dessert. Many berries need no added sweetening, with the exception of gooseberries, which must be cooked and definitely do require a sweetener. In fact, remember that the health benefits of berries will be offset by adding too much sugar and too many calories. However, berries can be combined with other healthy foods and ingredients that both complement and accent the natural flavors of these fruits, such as the wonderful serving suggestions linked to this article created by our own chefs Tom Fraker and Ida Rodriguez in the Melissa’s test kitchen. Nothing against the cherry, mind you, but life can also be just a bowl of berries too!