Berries, those jewel-like fruits ripening on lush bushes and vines, are one of the simplest and most sumptuous foods Mother Nature has to offer. At the peak of ripeness, juicy berries veritably burst in your mouth. With a taste somewhere between sweet and tart, they are a simple basic food—essentially perfect. Nothing needs to be done to them to make them taste better.
Berries are the ultimate snack food, tidy little packages of sweet perfection.
But most commercial growers are not content to let berries be berries. If you blindfolded me, sat me down at a table, and put two strawberries before me—one organically grown and one commercially grown—I believe I could tell you which was which. Compared to the organically grown strawberry, the commercially grown one—especially the Driscoll variety from California—would most likely be larger in size and more perfect looking, with fewer blemishes. While appearance can sometimes be deceiving, taste would be the giveaway. Commercially grown strawberries are usually irrigated by a watering system, so they tend to be large and full of water. While organically grown strawberries may occasionally be irrigated, especially during drought, organic growers generally use mulch around plants to retain moisture and let nature supply the water. Therefore, although organic berries aren’t usually as big and full of water, they’re twice as tasty.
Most commercially grown berries also are treated with chemicals to control insects and disease; herbicides are regularly used to keep down weeds. Residues of these chemicals remain in the soil and sometimes on the berries. Organically grown berries, however, are free of residue and, to my palate, have no chemical aftertaste. Their flavor comes through bright and clear.
Fresh, just-picked berries are one of nature’s most mouthwatering snacks. They’re low in calories, high in fiber, and are good sources of vitamin C and potassium. Both blueberries and strawberries contain high levels of antioxidants. Best of all, you can pop one in your mouth at any time. No seasoning, no sauce. A truly natural treat.
Why Buy Organic?
You may be able to find more food labeled “organic” now that the market demands it, but getting your hands on the freshest, healthiest produce does take extra effort and will cost you more. Here’s why it’s worth it.
• Strawberries are the most pesticide-contaminated produce on the market, according to the Pesticide Action Network. The EPA has classified some pesticides used to fumigate soil, eradicate soilborne diseases, and control weeds in berry and other produce fields as acutely toxic because they cause nerve damage and birth defects, and are harmful to lungs, kidneys, eyes, and skin. Pesticides also are known to pollute groundwater and help destroy the ozone layer.
• Although pesticide use is increasingly regulated in the United States and Europe, growers in other countries are not always subject to pesticide regulations. Berries from Mexico and South America also have been associated with outbreaks of hepatitis A, a viral infection spread through fecal matter.
• New federal standards regulating organic foods state that berries carrying an “organic” label are certified to have been grown without most pesticides. However, many critics point out that “certified-organic” produce may still have some chemicals associated with it. So go a step further and find out who your produce growers are and what methods of pest and fungicide controls they employ. Buy directly from the grower if you can. Other advantages to this kind of direct shopping include lower costs, support of the local economy, and produce most likely to be ripe and nutritious.
Where to Buy Organic
Farmer’s markets connect you directly with local farmers. You can shake hands with the people who raise your food and easily learn the methods they use to produce it. Not all farmer’s markets carry strictly organic produce, however. If organic farmers are not well represented at your market, let the market coordinator know. The reason organic produce has become available is that consumers demand it.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs allow consumers who purchase a subscription at a local farm to receive a box of freshly-grown, usually organic, produce directly from the grower each week during the growing season. Buying a farm subscription offers several advantages: There is no middleman, so produce is usually less expensive than at market; you can’t be in more direct contact with the source of your food unless you grow it yourself; and this way of shopping certainly teaches you to eat seasonally.
Natural food stores such as Whole Foods, Alfalfa’s, Wild Oats, Fresh Fields, and smaller locally owned natural food stores are proliferating across the country. According to Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, the number of natural food stores has grown by almost 30 percent in the last eight years. To access the freshest, ripest produce and at the same time support local farmers, ask the managers of your natural food markets to buy from local growers.
Local supermarkets are beginning to carry occasional organic produce. This is good news for consumers, but keep in mind that most big supermarket chains are not concerned about buying from local growers.
OLD-FASHIONED SHORTCAKE WITH MIXED BERRIES
The most common version of this dish is the traditional strawberry shortcake. It also is delicious made with any single type of berry, providing it is very ripe. A medley of berries is also elegant and provides you with a variety of tastes and textures. The secret ingredient here is grenadine; it’s a great syrup for marinating berries, and you don’t have to add sugar and lemon juice. Sometimes I add 1 to 2 tablespoons of minced lemon balm to the shortcake dough for a nice hint of citrus flavor.
2 pints berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, or boysenberries, or a combination thereof)
2 to 3 tablespoons grenadine syrup
2 cups unbleached white flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, scant
4 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted Whipping cream or vanilla ice cream Vanilla
Preheat oven to 425°F and lightly butter a baking sheet.
Rinse and drain berries. Remove hulls from strawberries, and halve them lengthwise if large. Remove stems and cores from other berries, if necessary. Toss berries in a bowl with the grenadine; it should just coat the fruit. As berries marinate, they will create a sweet juice.
Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and 3 tablespoons of sugar in a bowl or food processor. Cut butter into the mixture until it simulates coarse meal. Add milk to dry ingredients, and mix until just blended. Do not overmix.
Turn dough onto a floured surface, and knead eight or ten times. Roll or pat dough to about 3/4 inch thick. With a 3-inch cutter, cut out rounds, using all the dough.
Place rounds of dough on the baking sheet, brush tops with melted butter, and sprinkle them with the reserved tablespoon of sugar.
Bake cakes in the center of the oven for about 12 to 14 minutes or until golden brown. Cool shortcakes for at least 5 minutes before splitting them open; they are best served warm, but room temperature is fine.
Whip cream with just a little vanilla and a spoonful of sugar until it is thick and creamy, but not stiff. I prefer it soft and a bit runny for shortcakes. Or use vanilla ice cream instead. To assemble, split shortcakes in half. Place a spoonful or two of the berries on the bottom half with a bit of the juice. Add a dollop of whipped cream or a spoonful of ice cream on top half. Repeat with berries and cream, and garnish with a berry or two. Serve immediately.
Makes about eight 3-inch shortcakes.
SIMPLE STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE
You can use any berries in a smoothie, but my favorite is strawberry. My kids like this smoothie with ripe banana added—one banana for two drinks. Another great combo is raspberries and peaches. The best thing about this recipe, besides being quick and easy, is that it tastes good and is good for you! Double the recipe if you are making one for a friend, too.
6 to 8 strawberries, hulled and sliced—about 2/3 cup
1 tablespoon honey
3 ice cubes
1 cup soy milk, chilled
2 drops pure vanilla extract
Put strawberries in the blender. Drizzle honey on top. Add ice cubes. Pour soy milk over all, and add the vanilla. Blend until puréed and frothy. Serve immediately in a tall glass with a straw.
Makes one large drink.
This vinegar is a deep, rich, garnet red color, and it’s fruity—an excellent choice for dressings and marinades. You can add a few springs of opal basil to this recipe for flavor and flair. Strawberries, red currants, blueberries, boysenberries, and black raspberries also make wonderful vinegars. The colors vary: Strawberry and red currant vinegars are bright red, blueberry and boysenberry are dark blue, and blackberry is a deep purple black. If your fruit is tart, or you prefer a touch of sweetness, add sugar to lessen the vinegar’s acidity. I find that most people prefer the vinegar with sugar.
1 pint red ripe raspberries (or other berries)
3 cups white wine or rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar, optional
Rinse and pick over berries, using only the choicest ones. Remove hulls if you are using strawberries. Place berries in a clean, 1-quart canning jar.
Heat vinegar to barely simmering in a nonreactive pan made of glass or stainless steel. If you’re using sugar, stir it into the vinegar to dissolve. Pour vinegar into the jar, filling it to 1/2-inch from the top. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the jar, seal, and let it stand in a sunny window for about four weeks. Taste vinegar after two or three weeks; if it tastes good to you, use it. However, the longer the fruit is infused, the stronger the taste.
At this time, pour vinegar through a strainer lined with a paper towel or coffee filter to remove the berries. Pour vinegar into clean, pretty bottles, and store it in a cool, dark place. Use within one year. You can also place the berries in the bottom of the bottles before storing; they tend to turn dark and mushy, but their presence adds a gourmet touch to your vinegar.
Makes about one quart.
Harvesting and Storing Fresh Berries