My biggest complaint about strawberry season here is that it’s far too fleeting. Blink and you’ll miss it. Just as I get a taste for their sweetness they seem to disappear, leaving me standing in the middle of the farmers market with that stupid “wha’happin” look on my face. Blueberries, on the other hand, stick around for a while, and if there’s one thing that can make me forget all about the here-today-gone-tomorrow strawberry, it’s those summertime blues.
Native to North America, there are generally three varieties grown in the US. Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium agustifolium) grow only about a foot tall and prefer the cooler climate of Eastern Canada and Maine. They produce a small, intensely flavored berry and have a powdery blue hue. You will often find them referred to as wild blueberries. Most blueberries sold in the supermarket are of the highbush variety (V. corymbosum). Grown mainly on the east coast, the highbush plants can reach 5-10 feet. They produce a berry that is more plump but less intense in flavor than lowbush berries. Rabbiteyes (v. asheii) grow on 15-foot tall bushes and are native to the southeast, and Europe enjoys a tiny, dark blue variety known as bilberries (v. myrtillus).
In the U.S., blueberries were largely picked in the wild until the 1920s, when highbush berries were first cultivated for commercial production in New Jersey. Most commercially gown berries end up in cans for pie filling, but as American eating habits have changed for the better, sales of fresh berries have increased. The big blueberry producing states are New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan.
When buying blueberries, look for firm, plump ones with a deep bluish-purple hue and an almost silvery frost. Avoid berries that are wrinkled, mushy or green. Check containers for any signs of mold or staining. Reddish blueberries will not be sweet enough to eat, but will be fine for cooking if sugar is added.
Blueberries have a strong affinity for cinnamon, lemon (add some zest to your blueberry pancakes or muffins to bring them to life), peaches and maple syrup. They pair well with nutmeg, melons and almost any form of cultured dairy including sour cream, crème fraiche and yogurt.
Storing & Freezing
When kept dry, blueberries will last for 5 to 6 days in the fridge. It’s best to keep them in vented containers. Those small cardboard crates they are often sold in are ideal.
An easy way to preserve seasonal blueberries is to freeze theme. Spread dry berries in a single layer on a large metal sheet pan. Allow plenty of room to avoid clumping. (Berries must be absolutely dry. Do not to wash them before freezing, as this will toughen the skins. You can rinse them after they thaw.) Place the pan in the coldest part of your freezer, and freeze over night. Pour the frozen berries into a dated zip lock freezer bag. They should last 10 months, enough to carry you through to the next season. When you are ready to enjoy some, allow them to thaw in the refrigerator first. Rinse them if necessary, and use as you would fresh berries. It’s best not to refreeze them.
Oven-Baked Blueberry French Toast
Here’s a recipe adapted from Joan E. Aller’s Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly that really takes advantage of the blueberry’s affinity for cream, cinnamon and maple syrup.
- 2 – 8 oz. packages cream cheese, at room temperature
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 large eggs
- 1½ cups milk
- 10 slices French bread, ¾ inch thick (use a good quality bread)
- 2 cups fresh blueberries
- maple syrup
Preheat oven to 350°F, and lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch backing dish. On a large sheet pan, arrange the bread in a single layer and set aside until oven is heated.
With a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon at medium speed until well blended.
Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the milk, and mix well.
Bake the bread on the center rack of the oven until just dry, about 10-15 minutes.
Arrange the dried bread in the prepared baking dish, and spread the blueberries on top of the bread. Pour the cream cheese mixture over the bread and berries. Allow to stand for at least 15-20 minutes before backing, until the bread has soaked up a lot of the mixture and begun to soften. Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden brown.
Serve with maple syrup.