Blackberries in Small Batches

by Elizabeth Skipper | August 7th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

blackberries usdaI have a handful of blackberry bushes in my yard that are producing well.  If they all were ripe at the same time, I’d have enough for jam.  Unfortunately, I get a couple pints at a time.  Do you have suggestions for these individual harvests besides making pie or freezing?

You mean besides simply eating them? What’s more delicious than a big handful of gorgeous ripe berries eaten at the height of the season, except those same berries mashed up with a bit of sugar and a good pour of heavy cream? Well, perhaps you’ve consumed enough berries in their natural state to want some other ideas. Let’s see what comes to mind.

The first idea that comes up is syrup. Cooked with sugar and strained, blackberry syrup is good over pancakes, plain yogurt, ice cream, pound or angel food cake, or cheesecake. It’s also good as a base for beverages – pour some syrup into a glass, fill with sparkling water or club soda, and add a slice of lime – simple and refreshing. Just boil together 4 cups of cleaned blackberries with a scant cup of sugar and half a cup of water for about half an hour, strain through a sieve, and cool. If you want to make the flavor more complex, use red wine instead of water and add some orange peel.

Berries are delicious with other fruits. Mound some in a halved, seeded cantaloupe, perhaps with a bit of vanilla ice cream, for dessert. They’re a natural with peaches and nectarines. Make fruit salad sparked with a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice or a splash of white wine or champagne. Wine makes me think back to beverages – kir is an apéritif of white wine and crème de cassis (black currant liqueur); kir royale is the same but made with champagne. Substitute blackberry syrup for an equally tasty homegrown variation.

How about making blackberry salsa? The basic idea is to substitute fruit for the tomatoes (which are a fruit, anyway) and make salsa in the usual way, tweaking to adjust for the different characteristics of the fruit. Blackberries are among the more acid fruits, and tomatoes are acidic, so you probably don’t need any lemon or lime juice. Diced peppers are good if you like things mild, chiles work if you want more heat. Some diced red onion and chopped cilantro are essential; avoid garlic. Keep some of the berries whole and mash a few for a more salsa-like texture.

Fruit is very popular in salads. Try using blackberries with spinach, toasted pecans or candied walnuts, and a cheese like goat, feta, or blue cheese. With all those flavors, a simple vinaigrette will suffice. How about on top of a composed salad like Waldorf? You wouldn’t want to mix them in or the colors will all be muddied, but as a garnish they’d be tasty and attractive. Or purée some berries and add to the vinaigrette instead.

Have you tried making summer pudding? This is an English dessert which lines a pudding basin or mold with slices of stale white bread, and soaks them with a mixture of different kinds of berries (all ripe in summer, hence the name) gently stewed with sugar. Weighted and left overnight or for several hours, the pudding can be unmolded for a strikingly colorful presentation. Served with whipped cream, this is a creative use of bread past its prime.

Homemade fruit-flavored vinegars beat commercial ones because you can use mild vinegar and enough fruit to actually taste it. Use fruit vinegar for salad dressings and pan sauces. Deglaze the pan with fruit vinegar after sautéing poultry, pork, veal, or beef for a great sauce. If you like liver, a pan sauce made with blackberry vinegar, shallots, chicken stock, and butter sounds fabulous – a riff on the classic calf’s liver with raspberry sauce. Add some whole berries at the end to heat through, and serve.

While you can make a fruit vinegar by steeping whole berries with vinegar, I recommend using puréed fruit instead. Japanese rice vinegar is nice and mild at 4% acidity. Purée three cups of berries in a food processor and transfer to a medium bowl. Bring 1 cup rice vinegar (be sure to use unseasoned) to a boil in a one-quart saucepan with ¼ cup sugar and ½ cup water; reduce the heat and simmer about five minutes, until it becomes a bit syrupy. Mix with the purée.

If any foam has formed on top, skim it off, and then strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Extract as much of the juice as possible, and discard the seeds. Pour into either two 8-ounce jars or one 16-ounce canning jar which you’ve sterilized. Seal and store in a cool dry place, or refrigerate. Allow to steep at least two weeks before using.

Hope some of these suggestions strike your fancy. Remember, too, that if you’re keen to make jam, you can either mix your blackberries with another kind of fruit to have enough for a batch (which should always be made in small batches, anyway), or you can freeze your small harvests until you’ve accumulated enough for jam. Same goes for pie. Enjoy the blackberry season – it’s over all too soon.

(Photo: USDA)

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