Blueberry Primer

Northwest Blueberries Close Up

Although blueberries are indigenous to American soil and were one of the first fruits encountered by early settlers, the blueberry industry was still a relative newcomer to Washington and Oregon agribusiness in the 1990’s when I first wrote about it in Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking. At that time, the industry was 25-30 years young by most accounts.

However, the industry has grown remarkably over the years to keep pace with consumer demand. The humble blueberry is now America’s number two favorite berry, right behind the strawberry in popularity. Forty million pounds were harvested in Oregon in 2007, twice the amount from a decade earlier. Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and California are the largest producers of cultivated highbush blueberries in the United States, while Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries.

Baskets of Northwest Blueberries

One of the factors driving the growth in the blueberry industry is the newly discovered and evangelized health benefits of this berry. Blueberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants. They are claimed to enhance memory, control weight, cleanse arteries, defend against viruses and bacteria, delay the aging process, and improve vision. It almost seems a bonus that they taste so good, and nearly everyone loves them.

Blueberries are a natural convenience food–no pitting, no peeling, no coring. They are ready to use just as they are–whether popped into the mouth one by one, served with cream, or added to any number of baked goodies. Their color is unusual in the fruit world and ravishing; the deep purple-black displays irresistibly against strawberries, raspberries, and melon. Their distinctive flavor also pairs beautifully with a host of flavor partners.

Blueberries, Figs, and Raspberries at Pike Place Market

Season

From early-July through September.

Early varieties arrive in late June and include Bluetta and Earliblue (medium in size, firm, deeply colored, sweet) and Spartan (large in size, brilliantly colored, gorgeous flavor). Berkeley, Bluecrop, and Elliot are mid- to late-season varieties and are typically available through August.

Selection

Blueberries can be light or dark blue with a silvery sheen, but they should have no reddish tinge when they are fully ripe. Size is not a factor, as different varieties come in different sizes. They must be fully ripe before picking; they will not continue to ripen on their own at home.

Look for a silver bloom on blueberries, that powdery substance on the surface. Heavy bloom indicates that the berries are fresh. Shiny berries are likely not as fresh as berries with a soft powdery surface.

Berries should appear clean and dry. Avoid berries that are soft, watery, dull in color, shriveled or mushy.

The flavor of blueberries is critically tied to acidic soil and cool summers; the Northwest region has plenty of both. There are more than 50 varieties of blueberries grown in the Northwest today, each one possessing unique characteristics of size, aroma, flavor, acidity, and harvest time. Be sure to sample a blueberry or two before deciding which to buy.

Some of the available varieties include Berkeley, Bluecrop, Bluegold, Bluejay, Bluetta, Brigitta, Chandler, Collins, Coville, Darrow, Duke, Earliblue, Elizabeth, Elliott, Hardyblue, Jersey, Lateblue, Legacy, Nelson, Powder Blue, and Spartan.

Storage

Always refrigerate blueberries, unwashed, and well sealed with plastic wrap. If they are very fresh, they can actually last for 7-14 days.

Preparation

Nothing to do but rinse.

Cooking

Now here is a berry that I personally enjoy much more when it’s flavor is released by a little heat. Most berries suffer with cooking, but not the blueberry. It becomes another entity altogether–richer, fuller, more complex. So by all means, cook it. Throw it into your favorite muffin, pancake, or quick bread recipe; or make a sauce, pudding, jam, or pie of it. It is one very versatile berry.

Great Partners

Allspice, almonds, apple mint, apples, apricots, bananas, basil, blackberries, black pepper, brandy, brown sugar, burnt sugar, butter, buttermilk, Calvados, caramel, cinnamon, cinnamon basil, cloves, cognac, cornmeal, cream, cream cheese, crème de cassis, crème fraîche, currants, custard, egg yolk, ginger (fresh, candied, and powdered), Grand Marnier, hazelnuts, honey, Kirsch, lavender, lemon, lemon thyme, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lime, mace, mangoes, maple syrup, mascarpone, melon, mint, molasses, nectarines, nutmeg, oatmeal, oranges, peaches, pears, pecans, persimmon, pineapple, pine nuts, port, raspberries, rhubarb, ricotta cheese, rose geranium, rose petal, rum, salmon, sour cream, strawberries, thyme, triple sec, vanilla, walnuts, watermelon, white chocolate, yogurt.

Additional Pairings

LunaCafe Recipes

NOTE PNP = Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking

Resources

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