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Blueberries

The blueberry is a Native American species with deep roots in America's history. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, the American Indians were already enjoying these juicy berries year round through very clever preservation techniques. They were dried in the sun, then added whole to soups, stews and meat; or crushed into a powder and rubbed into meat - perhaps the predecessor of today's trendy "spice rubs". The powder would also be combined with cornmeal, water and honey to make a pudding called Sautauthig. The Pilgrims learned to appreciate blueberries from the Indians, especially as it was the Indian's gift of blueberries which helped the new settlers make it through that first cold winter.

Blueberries also have a place in the annals of folk medicine. Their roots were brewed into a tea to help relax women during childbirth; their leaves steeped to make a blood purifier. Blueberry juice and syrup also cured coughs, according to tribal medicine men.

The blueberry is no youngster, botanists estimate it's been around for more than 13,000 years. However, it wasn't cultivated until the first quarter of this century.

Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick V. Coville were the first to develop the hybrid for cultivated highbush blueberries by domesticating and improving wild highbush blueberry species. The result is a plump, juicy, sweet and easy-to-pick berry with color ranging from deep purple-blue to blue-black, highlighted by a silvery sheen called the "bloom".

Botanically speaking, the blueberry is part of a family that includes the flowering azalea, mountain laurel and heather - all plants that favor acid soil, plenty of water and a cool season. Once growers learned how to increase soil acidity, they were able to grow cultivated blueberries in 35 states and two provinces. Among the major cultivated blueberry producing regions are New Jersey in the East, Michigan and Indiana in the Mid West, and Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in the West. Blueberries are harvested in the South as well, with berries coming from North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

On average, cultivated blues represent more than half of all the blueberries produced in North America. Lowbush blues are also harvested, but mainly for use in processed foods.

Cultivated blueberries grow in clusters and don't all ripen at once. The berries at the bottom of the cluster can be ripe while the ones on top are still green. Fresh blueberries are picked by hand to gather the best quality fruit. Harvesting machines are also used to harvest blueberries, gently shaking each plant so only the ripe berries fall into the catching frame. Most of the machine harvested berries are immediately frozen for use year round.

Although fresh blueberries are available nearly eight months of the year from producers across the US and Canada, the peak season is from mid-June to mid-August when the majority of all North American blues are harvested. The earliest harvest is in the southern states and it progressively moves north and into Canada as the season continues.

And after the fresh season is over, cultivated blueberries can still be enjoyed year round, as frozen berries, and in processed foods.

Total North American production of both lowbush and cultivated blueberries reached an estimated 330 million pounds in 1997. Cultivated blueberries accounted for over 55% of total production. Cultivated blueberry production has steadily increased over the years, form an average of nearly 50 million pounds in the early 1960's to an average of more than 170 million pounds in the mid 1990's.

Slightly less than half of all cultivated blueberries are shipped to the fresh market, while the balance of the berries are harvested to be frozen, pureed, concentrated, canned or dried to be used in a wide range of food products, including yogurt, pastries, muffins, baby food, ice cream and cereals.

Buying Fresh Blueberries

Look for: fresh blueberries that are firm, dry, plump, smooth-skinned and relatively free from leaves and stems. Size is not an indicator of maturity but color is - berries should be deep purple-blue to blue-black; reddish berries aren't ripe, but may be used in cooking.

Stay away from: containers of berries with juice stains, which may be a sign that the berries are crushed and possibly moldy; soft, watery fruit that means the berries are overripe; dehydrated, wrinkled fruit that means the berries have been stored too long.

Fresh berries should be stored covered, in the refrigerator and washed just before using. Use within 10 days of purchase.

Frozen Blueberries

Dry-pack berries in poly bags or boxes can be found in the frozen food section of your supermarket. The frozen berries should feel loose, not clumped together.

Frozen blueberries are individually quick frozen so you can pull out a few or as many as needed.

Blueberries should be kept frozen and the unused portion returned to the freezer promptly. If not used immediately, cover and refrigerate thawed berries and use within three days.

Commercially frozen berries are washed before being frozen so washing again is not necessary. If you make your own frozen blueberries, wash just before using.

How to Freeze Your Own Blueberries

The secret to successful freezing is to use berries that are unwashed and completely dry before popping them into the freezer. Completely cover the blueberry containers with plastic wrap or a resealable plastic bag, or transfer berries to a plastic bag and seal airtight. Or, arrange dry berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet. When frozen, transfer berries to plastic bags or freezer containers.

Nutrition

Luscious, sweet blueberries have a nutrition profile fitting for the 90's. They are not only lowfat, but also a good source of both fiber and vitamin C. In fact, a one-cup serving of fresh blueberries will give you 5 grams of fiber, more than most fruits and vegetables and 15% of your daily value for vitamin C at a cost of only 80 calories.

When buying packaged goods that call themselves "blueberry", such as waffles and pancakes; cereals and cookies; muffin, cake and cookie baking mixes, be sure to read the ingredient label closely. Some products don't contain any real blueberries at all, but rather artificially flavored and colored bits or apple pieces, designed to simulate berries.

Blueberries may change color when cooked. Acids, such as lemon juice and vinegar, cause the blue pigment in the berries to turn reddish. Blueberries also contain a yellow pigment, which in an alkaline environment, such as a batter with too much baking soda, may give you greenish-blue berries.

To reduce the amount of color streaking, stir your blueberries in last (right from your freezer, if frozen) into your cake or muffin batter.

For pancakes and waffles, add the blueberries as soon as the batter has been poured on the griddle or waffle iron. This will make the pancakes prettier and they'll be easier to flip. If frozen blueberries are used, cooking time may have to be increased to be sure the berries are heated through.

  • Blueberries are an amiable berry - getting along well with a diverse crowd of foods and flavors. Though they can't be beat in all things sweet - such as cakes, puddings, muffins, pancakes, cookies, etc., don't forget, they're pretty impressive on the savory side, too. Their fresh, fruity flavor teams up perfectly with pork, chicken and game, and they're dynamite in fruit salsas and sauces accented with black or red pepper, thyme and mint.
  • Spices love blueberries; try them with cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and candled ginger, mace, nutmeg and vanilla beans or vanilla extract; also fresh herbs like cilantro, mint and basil.
  • Dairy foods are a natural mate for blueberries - cottage cheese, ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, sour cream, heavy cream, ricotta cheese, or try blueberries as part of a fruit and cheese platter with mild cheeses such as Brie and goat cheese.
  • Almost any fruit teams up well with blueberries - apples, apricots, coconut, melons, citrus fruits and all other berries.
  • All kinds of nuts go well, especially almonds - almond paste.
  • Liqueurs, such as orange or raspberry are good companions; also rum or rum extract.
  • Try dried blueberries instead of raisins in your next granola mix, oatmeal cookies, gingerbread, cornbread or pound cake.

Recipes

Blueberry Cake

Blueberry Tea Cakes

Blueberry Waldorf Salad

Blueberry, Watermelon and Walnut Salad

Other recipes from Produce Pete.

   

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