Summertime offers a berry bonanza

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

Hooray! It’s berry season. Pick your own, go to the farmers markets, go to the local store. Stock up now. You will be inspired.

When buying berries, I inspect them carefully. A stained basket means overripe fruit — which can mean moldy berries lurk out of view. Look for fruit free of blemishes. Hulls on strawberries should be fresh and green, not wilted, and the fruit red all the way to the stem. Raspberries, blackberries and black raspberries should be bright in color and stemless. Stems tell you that the berries were likely picked unripe, and unripe berries do not ripen further off the bush.

At the peak of the season I am prone to overbuying. No problem. Spread them out on a towel-lined baking sheet to dry; they will keep longer in the refrigerator. Inspect the berries for mold or bruises. Stack the berries into a container no more than 2 or 3 inches deep. Refrigerate, uncovered, up to several days. Gently rinse berries just before using.

Whole berries freeze beautifully and can be added frozen to pancake, waffle, cake and muffin batters. To ready berries for freezing, put them in a colander. (Don’t pile in too many or they’ll crush.) Use the sprayer on the sink or a little flow of water to very gently rinse the berries. Then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Once dry, remove the paper towels. Slide the baking sheet into the freezer until berries are frozen solid. Transfer to freezer containers or bags. Use within a few months.

Berry puree likewise proves versatile. Simply puree fresh or frozen thawed berries and strain them to remove the seeds. The unsweetened puree freezes well and can be employed in savory applications. Add agave syrup to sweeten the puree for a fantastic pancake, waffle or shortcake topping.

Fresh strawberries, and a bit of berry puree, add sweetness and tang to fresh vinaigrettes. Use the following recipe to dress a bowl of greens tossed with chopped chives. Or, try it spooned over grilled, salt-and-pepper-seasoned chicken thighs. Grilled Belgian endive likewise tastes great when dressed with the berry vinaigrette and crumbled goat cheese.

Just for summer fun, make a berry wine syrup to drizzle over fresh berries, pancakes or frozen yogurt. A sprinkle over salads or grilled eggplant adds a sweet touch. Stir spoonfuls into iced tea or freshly squeezed lemonade; garnish with a couple of fresh berries.

I enjoy the sweet burst of flavor from berries mixed into savory grains for a meatless main dish. Fresh herbs, crumbled soft cheese and toasted nuts add textural contrast. Use the berry vinaigrette to season the cooked grains while they are warm for maximum flavor. Whole grain wheat berries sport good amounts of fiber, protein and iron. Fine, but I really cook and eat them because they are delicious, full of nutty flavor and toothsome texture. They take a while to cook, 45 minutes to an hour of simmering. Good news: You can cook a bunch in advance, then cool and freeze in small containers for quick weekday enjoyment.

Armed with containers of fresh berry puree, a tangy berry vinaigrette and some aromatic berry syrup, summer cooking couldn’t be sweeter.

Fresh Berry Puree

Put 3 cups (about 12 ounces) assorted clean, fresh berries in a blender. Puree smooth. Push puree through a fine mesh strainer into a freezer container. Makes about 1 1/2 cups puree. Sweeten with agave syrup, if you like.

Pink Berry Vinaigrette

This dressing is delicious on fresh spinach salad with thinly sliced red onion, toasted nuts and grilled chicken. It keeps in the refrigerator for several days; the strawberry slices will soften considerably.

1/3 cup fruity olive oil

2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh berry puree, see recipe

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 cups thinly sliced hulled, small strawberries

Put oil, lime juice, vinegar and mustard into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Add the berry puree (or agave), salt and pepper. Shake well. Add the strawberries. Let macerate 15 minutes or so before using. Serves 16.

Per 2 tablespoon serving: 48 calories; 4 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 75 percent calories from fat); 2 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 92 mg sodium; 0 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Berry Wine Syrup

Seedless berry jam adds the berry flavor to red wine. Try this on crepes filled with lightly sweetened whipped ricotta. Make a double recipe; the syrup keeps 2 weeks or more.

1 cup fruity red wine, such as pinot noir

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup best quality seedless berry jam or jelly (I like elderberry jelly here)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pinch cinnamon, optional

Put wine, sugar and jam into a small saucepan. Heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until mixture has reduced enough to make a thin syrup, about 20 minutes. Cool. Makes 5 servings.

Stir in lemon juice and cinnamon. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature.

Makes about 2/3 cup.

Per serving: 161 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 33 g carbohydrates; 29 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 mg sodium; 0 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Wheat Berry Salad with Goat Cheese and Walnuts

For a gluten-free salad, use sorghum. For faster salad options, substitute pearled farro or quinoa and cook according to package directions in about 15 minutes. Cracked wheat (bulgur) soaks to tenderness (no need to cook) in about 30 minutes. Leftover salad will keep refrigerated for several days; add the toasted nuts just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

2 cups wheat berries

6 cups vegetable broth or water


1 cup walnut pieces

Pink berry vinaigrette, see recipe

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 cups thinly sliced hulled small strawberries

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or thinly sliced green onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves

Butter lettuce or small romaine lettuce leaves

6 ounces crumbled goat cheese (or feta or queso fresco)

Chive blossoms or mint sprigs

Put wheat berries, broth and 1/4 teaspoon salt into a heavy saucepan. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover the pan tightly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until wheat berries are pleasantly chewy, 60 to 70 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool.

Meanwhile, put walnuts into a small dry skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until nuts are aromatic and a bit toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool, then chop roughly.

Strain the wheat berries in a wire-mesh strainer or a colander. Put wheat berries in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette to taste. Toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently fold in strawberries, chives and mint.

To serve, line salad plates with the lettuce leaves. Spoon wheat berry mixture onto the lettuce. Top with the cheese and walnuts. Drizzle with syrup, if using. Garnish with chive blossoms or mint. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 459 calories; 21 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 52 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 22 mg cholesterol; 603 mg sodium; 20 g protein; 10 g fiber.

Sweet Feta Mousse with Berries

President brand Valbreso feta, a product of France, is nice and soft. A Greek sheep and goat’s milk blend of feta, such as Mt. Vikos brand, is firmer and less milky tasting, but also delicious.

14 to 16 ounces mild, soft feta cheese

1 1/2 teaspoons plain gelatin

6 ounces (2/3 cup) plain Greek yogurt or creamy German-style quark

1/2 cup part skim ricotta cheese

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 to 4 cups mixed fresh raspberries, golden raspberries, black berries, thinly sliced small strawberries

Rinse feta well to help remove salty brine. Put into a bowl; cover with fresh water and let soak about 1 hour. Drain well and discard the water.

Line a 4-cup glass bowl with plastic wrap. Put gelatin and 1 tablespoon water in a small glass bowl; stir to mix. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

Put feta, yogurt, ricotta, sugar, orange zest and vanilla into a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Microwave the gelatin for 30 seconds to melt it, then add to blender and process to mix. Scrape mixture into the prepared bowl. Cover with plastic. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours.

Remove top sheet of plastic. Invert bowl over a serving platter. Remove plastic wrap. Surround with mixed fresh berries. Serve drizzled with syrup. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 325 calories; 19 g fat (11 g saturated fat; 53 percent calories from fat); 26 g carbohydrates; 15 g sugar; 66 mg cholesterol; 874 mg sodium; 15 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Strawberry Pie with Oil Crust

Note: It’s best to use regular Jell-O to thicken and flavor the glaze. A 3-ounce box is enough for 2 pies, so save the rest for another day. This recipe also is great with fresh peaches and peach Jell-O. From Kim Ode.

1 1/3 cups flour

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup sugar, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon neutral oil such as canola

3 tablespoons milk

2 (1 pound) cartons of strawberries

3/4 cup water

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons strawberry- flavored Jell-O (save remainder for another pie, or make a half-batch of Jell-O)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine flour, 2 tablespoons sugar and salt in a pie plate.

Mix together oil and milk until creamy, then pour over dry ingredients. With a fork, slowly blend the mixture until it’s evenly moistened and begins to come together. Don’t overwork it. Press mixture across the bottom and up the sides of pan as evenly as possible. For a smooth edge, hold your thumb along the rim as you press the dough against it. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork about a dozen times to let the crust release steam.

Bake for 15 minutes. Let cool on wire rack.

While the crust is baking, start preparing the filling: Wash and core strawberries. You can set aside some smaller ones if you want whole berries in the filling. Otherwise halve or quarter the berries and set aside.

In small saucepan, whisk together 3/4 cup water, 3/4 cup sugar and cornstarch. Over medium-high heat and stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil. Stir for another 30 seconds; it will suddenly become translucent. Remove from heat and stir in Jell-O.

Arrange half of the sliced berries in the pie shell and spoon over about one-third of the glaze. Arrange the remaining berries in the shell and coat with remaining glaze.

Chill for several hours before serving. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 320 calories; 11 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 31 percent calories from fat); 52 g carbohydrates; 31 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 100 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Mini Lemon-Glazed Blueberry Muffins

2 cups white whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 large egg

1 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 (5.3-ounce) containers plain Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries, completely dry

Lemon sugar and glaze

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/4 cup granulated sugar

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a standard mini muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg; set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg until light in color. Add brown sugar and continue to whisk for 30 to 60 seconds. Add the melted butter in two batches, whisking after each addition. Add the Greek yogurt in two batches, whisking after each addition. Whisk in vanilla.

Gently toss blueberries in flour mixture. Add the yogurt mixture and fold gently until blended thoroughly. Do not over-mix. Divide batter evenly into the prepared muffin tin. This will be a heaping tablespoon. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

While muffins are baking, prepare lemon sugar and glaze. Carefully remove muffins from muffin tin, place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

To make lemon sugar: In a small bowl, stir lemon zest into 1/3 cup sugar; set aside.

To make the glaze: In a small saucepan, combine lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring and simmering until the mixture is thick and syrup-like. Allow the mixture to reduce to about 4 tablespoons.

After the muffins have cooled 5 minutes, brush the tops with lemon glaze and dip the tops in the lemon sugar.

Per serving: 82 calories; 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 20 percent calories from fat); 14 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 10 mg cholesterol; 81 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 1 g fiber.