by Donna Marie Desfor
For days I’ve been thinking about how to wax poetic on the multitude of berries that are everywhere: in the markets, in the grocery stores, at roadside stands, and even in your favorite restaurants. I thought about lauding the natural vitamins, flavanoids, and beneficial antioxidants they offer. I also considered discussing the color element of food and food pairings (trendy, but not really useful). And at one point, I even became obsessed with creating that brand new summer berry dish that would have the gastronomes of the world in a fit of delight. I was tormenting myself. Soon enough, I came to the realization that berries — at their height of ripeness and season — need little more than a gentle nudge and a bit of a caress to lift their flavor and make them beg to be devoured. There is little more that needs to be said.
Berries, especially summer berries, are simple: They are meant to be devoured — never savored. The fact that they are available literally year round should raise a red flag of caution, however. Availability shouldn’t mean they can carry a leading role in months other than summer. When ripe (as opposed to fresh), a berry’s juice will literally stream over your tongue delivering a sweet or tart tang of flavor. Nature knows what it is doing. Perhaps that’s what ultimately brought me back around. I embraced that natural intuitiveness and decided to strip away that epicurean ideal that any ingredient can be improved upon.
So with that purist intent, our Test Kitchen crew set out to create a multitude of recipes that, in essence, capture nature’s pure genius and its gift of summer flavor — flavor that is delivered in sweet, ripe juices that fill our mouths and splatter our lips, cheeks, and chins.
It was my Master Gardener friend and Sous Chef who coined the phrase “naked deliciousness.” She was right, but as a gardener extraordinaire, she would know. The blueberries and blackberries, the strawberries and raspberries that are at the roadside stands are meant to be purchased and consumed almost immediately. Local berries — ones that aren’t grown or modified to withstand early picking and long-distance travel — are ideal. They may not be perfectly round or evenly colored, but one bite and you’ll redefine sweet desire — and perhaps come to know what it has taken me years to understand: that glorious imperfection can be nature’s way of pointing to extraordinary flavor. And there’s only one way to know if they’re good: taste them. Yes, pick up a berry and taste it. You’ll know. You’ll reach for another.
Recipe: Berries with Citrus and Vanilla
Beyond the simplicity of natural sweetness, there are other flavor elements that marry so beautifully with summer berries: floral notes, as in the Blueberry Lavender Syrup, and acidic notes that draw out the flavor of strawberries in the Aromatic Rice and Pearl Barley Salad. That’s not to say that any berry can be combined with any other fruit, or wrapped into a dish and simply be delicious, just because it’s in season. We tried and failed a number of times during our testing process. Berry sauces and glazes for main courses: A nice idea (we tried it) that rarely works (trust us on this one). When it does, the berries have been worked so hard that they literally lose all of their natural appeal. Why bother?
It is fun, though, researching what’s already been done for the ingredient of the month used at Gastronomic Meditations™. It allows me to romp through my collection of cookbooks and visit with those who have tackled ingredients and tasted flavors ahead of me. I find little that surprises me anymore. It seems that in one form or another, it has been done — or at least attempted. It is true that despite our rather straightforward use of the standard berries (blue, black, rasp and straw) there are other delights out there, like gooseberries and mulberries (although, growing up I had a mulberry bush in my back yard, and after two days of making mulberry jam, I am off mulberries forever). There are the infamous jewels: cranberries and, of course, viticultural grapes — those luscious berries that are transformed into wine. Though mainstream, I trust you’ll agree that there is nothing pedestrian about our approach here.
My research romp did uncover a recipe for Brandied Raspberries, which I encourage anyone with a craving for summer fruit (and a desire to encounter a hauntingly evocative palate experience) to try. Alice Waters, in her Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook, captures and extends the essence of summer freshness in a gastronomically pleasing way — without freezing. She combines sugar, cognac, and raspberries and allows the mixture to macerate for several days. Once done, they go into the refrigerator, where she says the berries will last for a full year. How convenient. The berries get used in desserts, and the liquid gets incorporated into sauces.
Mine have been going for about a month. I can safely say they will be long gone before next year. My goal, right now, is to see if I can keep my hands off them until I get to the Holidays. Or, I’ll make more. With the abundance of raspberries waning here, now is certainly the time to act.
Alas, with a heavy sigh, we welcome the arrival of summer berries, and then watch them quickly fade from abundance. They are, in their natural form, a pure flavor: sweet. As a pure flavor, you need little more than an acidic platform (lemon or citrus juices and zests, balsamic or other vinegars) to enable the flavor to come through, and when you add other natural flavor elements, like lavender or herbal elements, or natural sweeteners like vanilla or honey, the rest is just a garnish. And if you really think about it, why would you spend more time on a berry’s garnish than on the berry itself?
Indulge. Naked is good. Ah, no. That’d be, naked is delicious.
Photos: Kelly Cline
Donna Marie Desfor is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.