Berries are a fabulous source of antioxidants and anthocyanins; eat lots while they’re ripe in the Northwest, and save some for later, too.
I think there are three things that Seattleites universally look forward to when contemplating summer: The reappearance of a certain glowing orb in the sky, dining alfresco without needing a warm hat and gloves, and local berries. Happily, our berry season runs from June to September, although you have to act fast to take full advantage of the more-fleeting June-to-July strawberry season.
Strawberries are our nation’s most popular berry, followed by blueberries. Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, with a mere half-cup supplying most of your daily need. Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, including anthocyanins, the colorful pigments that give many fruits and vegetables their beautiful shades of blue, purple and red. Other berries — strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries and marionberries — also contain some anthocyanins along with other antioxidants.
Antioxidants are important for health because they neutralize the free radicals that can damage our cells and DNA. Anthocyanins are a family of phytonutrients (compounds produced by plants that often have health benefits for humans) and eating anthocyanin-rich foods could lower your risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease, heart attack and stroke) and cancer. Research suggests that blueberries, and other berries to a lesser extent, may be an important part of a brain-healthy diet.
The anthocyanins in berries are delicate, and while cooking degrades them, freezing does not. That’s great news if you grow, buy, or pick fresh berries in season and want to enjoy them year round. It’s also nice if you tend to buy your berries already frozen. Even when you get your fill of fresh, in-season berries, it’s fun to extend the season so you can reclaim a little taste of summer once the rain returns. Two ways to hold on to some of that fresh flavor is with no-cook freezer jam and cold-pressed berry shrubs (no, not the plants that some berries grow on).
Strawberry freezer jam
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Freezer jam is perfect for anyone who can’t commit to the whole process of canning, or is nervous to try it. As an added bonus, freezer jams don’t need to be cooked, so you won’t damage those lovely anthocyanins.
Because I blanch at the idea of using twice as much sugar as fruit, I opted to make low-sugar jam, using Pomona’s Universal Pectin. The very thorough information page inside the box includes directions for making both cooked (and canned) jam as well as freezer jam, so there are a lot of words on that page. Simplify things by writing down exactly what you need to add, and in what amounts, so you don’t have search the page as you work. I also recommend making sure your jars/containers are washed and dried and the sugar, water and pectin are measured before you start working on the berries — it makes the whole process easier.
4 cups crushed strawberries (you’ll need about 4 pints of fully ripe strawberries)
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water for dissolving the pectin
3 teaspoons pectin
1. Crush strawberries using a potato masher, or lightly pulse them in a food processor. You want to have some chunks. Add the sugar to the berries and mix to combine. Allow to sit for 10 minutes while you prepare the pectin.
2. Follow the directions for mixing the pectin and water listed on the box/ insert for your particular brand of pectin.
3. Pour the pectin/water mixture over the berry/sugar mixture and stir until the sugar has dissolved, about three minutes. If using Pomona’s, follow the directions for adding the calcium water, which you’ll have mixed up during your advance prep.
4. Ladle the jam into plastic containers or straight-sided glass jars, leaving ½ inch at the top to allow for the jam to expand when it freezes. Use a wet paper towel to wipe any jam off the rim of the container, and put on the lids.
5. Follow your pectin brand’s instructions for freezing. Pomona’s says to freeze immediately, but other brands say to let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
Note: Sure-Jell and Ball also make low-sugar pectins that are simpler to use, but I like Pomona’s because it’s free of preservatives and sugar (yes, most low-or-no-sugar pectins contain sugar, in the form of dextrose). You can find Pomona’s at several stores in the Seattle area, including Whole Foods, PCC Natural Markets and Central Co-Op. It has a store locator on its website, and you can also order online.
I became intrigued by shrubs recently when a patient was reminiscing about a balsamic-berry shrub her sister made for her when she was pregnant and unable to partake of alcoholic beverages. A quick Google search turned up a wealth of how-to’s for DIY shrubs. Shrubs are essentially a mix of fruit juice, vinegar and sugar, although they can get much fancier with herbal infusions and whatnot. I took my inspiration from a simple cold-brewed shrub recipe on Serious Eats. (Google “serious eats shrub recipes.” You won’t be disappointed.)
1 cup blueberries
1/2-1 cup sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1. Crush the blueberries in a glass or Pyrex bowl and stir in the sugar. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.
2. Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and dump in the fruit and sugar. Press the mixture with a spoon, allowing the juice and syrup to drain into the bowl. Discard the fruit solids.
3. Whisk in the vinegar until the sugar is mostly dissolved and pour the mixture into a clean jar or bottle. Put on a lid and put it in the fridge to mature for a few weeks, shaking every so often. It will become mellower and richer in flavor.
Note: If you find balsamic vinegar too strong for your taste, try white balsamic vinegar.