Hard to beat blueberries picked in U.P.

Blueberry picking is a tradition here. The month of July is even called Miin Giizis or Berry Moon in the Anishinabe language, and blueberries have been part of the diet of people living in the Upper Peninsula for a very long time. The heat of the midsummer sun, the plunk of the berries hitting the bottom of the bucket, and the hot smell of pine needles and sandy soil of Jack Pine barrens beside a two-track are an important part of July and August for many of us in the Upper Peninsula. I planted a few cold-hardy blueberry bushes from a nursery at my house this year, and learned that the blueberry was not domesticated until the turn of the last century, then was not farmed extensively until after several varieties were bred in the 1920s. The blueberry has been wild for much of our interaction with it, I’ve learned that for the best tasting berries, I have to go in search of wild places.

Blueberries are one of the most recognizable wild plants, and occur widely in the U.P. especially in areas that have recently experienced fire. We have an instinctual attraction to pick the berries from the plants, and seldom mistake a poisonous plant for a blueberry-though one exception is Clintonia borealis or Bluebead, a common wildflower of mixed hardwoods areas which has a few bright blue berries at the end of a long stem. The fruit is mildly toxic, and quite unpleasant tasting.

When I harvest, I never pick an area entirely clean. I try to leave some for the birds and bears, the chippies and ground squirrels, and the next people who come along looking to fill their buckets. Once harvested, here are some tips for keeping the berries fresh:

  • Don’t close the bag or container on sun-warmed blueberries. Condensation will begin to form, and moisture settling on the berries encourages them to rot more quickly.
  • Chill directly after picking again, in an open container. The sooner you’re able to get berries into the fridge after picking, the longer they’ll last without other preservation measures.
  • Wash blueberries just before eating or canning. An exception to this rule is freezing: washing blueberries before freezing toughens the skin. Blueberries are coated in a “bloom” which is an epicuticular wax that occurs naturally on the fruit that limits moisture loss.

You might notice that apples, plums, and other fruits have a similar coating. Removing the bloom makes the fruit more vulnerable to infiltration by microorganisms that cause rot, so don’t wash your berries until you’re ready to use them.

Blueberries are perhaps the easiest berry to freeze. Spread on a sheet pan and freeze, then bag for berries that remain separate and can be easily poured from the bag in small portions for smoothies. Or simply stick an entire bag or plastic ice-cream bucket of them in the freezer to be used later for larger projects, like crisps or fresh jam.

If you’ve ever cooked blueberry pancakes or muffins and found that the berries turned an unappetizing green, you’re witnessing the anthocyanins-the compounds that make the blue-reacting to an alkaline environment (like that caused by baking soda as a leavening agent). Try adding a little buttermilk or vinegar to your recipe to counteract the color change.

Blueberries are marketed as a “superfood,” a non-scientific claim that suggests that their anti-oxidant content, especially from anthocyanins, makes them especially healthful. The UK’s National Health Service has examined the claims surrounding the high antioxidant content of blueberries, and have found that more research is needed to prove the link between blueberries and good heart health, protection against cancer, and improved memory. I’m glad that a U.P. favorite is topping the list of superfoods, but what I really love about blueberries is the experience of foraging for them and bringing home a harvest to put up that makes me think of the orange days of summer during the winter!

One of my favorite things to do with frozen blueberries is a simple, classic sauce called coulis (koo-LEE). Coming from the French tradition, coulis is a thick sauce made from pureed fruits or vegetables. Wild blueberry coulis is a beautiful addition to homemade panna cotta, which is a creamy, understated canvas for piquant coulis.

Most panna cotta recipes use unflavored gelatin, but I prefer to use eggs for the luscious silkiness of the end result. It’s not really any more difficult, and I never have gelatin on hand, though panna cotta with eggs is very quick to whip up and bake. Neither coulis, nor panna cotta, are as intimidating as they might sound. Both of them have only a few ingredients.

Try making these now in the midst of summer, but save some blueberries in the freezer for a special dessert with your friends some long January night.

Editor’s note: Abbey Palmer is an employee of the Marquette Food Co-Op.