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Berries Ripe for the U-picking

In the Pantry

Ah, summertime. Even those with schooldays long behind them get a bit nostalgic for the lazy days of swimming holes, fireflies, and barbecue picnics. And there is no better way to end a full day of soaking in the sun than with a dessert of fresh fruit--cool and juicy blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Berry season is nature's official declaration that summer is on its way.

Berry Summer Forecast

There's no doubt we've had a very cold winter relative to other recent years, possibly related to what some scientists call the strongest El Niño since the winter of 1997-98. An El Niño is a temporary change in the climate of the Pacific ocean, the region on the equator. The changes can have big effects on the Earth's climate, causing wet winters in the southeastern U.S., and droughts in Indonesia and Australia--and those conditions affect crops.

Farmers worried about heavy rainfall in September as they struggled in wet weather to get fields ready and berry crops planted. Crops were planted late in many areas. But later snowfalls actually provided insulation, keeping the berries at 25 degrees while under the blanket of snow. As the temperatures begin to rise, the warm weather will ripen the berries. In short, the volume of berries is down, but the quality will be top-notch.

Consumers may find that berries are more expensive at supermarkets due to low volume, and everyone knows berries are pricey produce to start! A more fruitful approach (yes, I went there)? Pick your own!

U-Pick Berry Farms

Christina Collazo went to Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls, Texas during strawberry picking season. "Honestly? I didn't do it for the freshness, we went for fun," she says. "[My son] and I were looking for something to do, and it was a fun mini-adventure."

U-Pick berry farms are easy to find with resources like PickYourOwn.org, a directory of u-pick farms in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries. The site also features crop calendars for each local area to tell you what is available to pick throughout the year, local weather forecasts, and ideas of what to do with your self-picked bounty, such as how to make jam, jelly, and 150 other recipes with step-by-step instructions on how to can, freeze, dry, or preserve the harvest.

U-pick berry farms offer many advantages over supermarkets. Consider the following benefits:

  1. Saving money. Grocery stores charge high prices because berries bruise easily, spoil quickly, and do not ship well. That adds up to a lot of spoiled berries. Cut out the middle man and go directly to the source!
  2. Eating fresh produce. Most produce in the U.S. is picked four to seven days before it hits the supermarket shelves. By picking berries yourself, you get the freshest fruit possible. Berries go straight from the bush to your basket.
  3. Supporting local farmers. If food is picked up to seven days before it arrives at the grocery store, it's because it's shipped for an average of 1500 miles before being sold. And this is only U.S. grown products. Distances are substantially longer for produce imported from Mexico, Asia, Canada, South America, and other countries. Picking your own berries helps to preserve the environment and helps small farmers. When buying at the supermarket, only 18 cents of every dollar goes to the grower--the rest goes to middlemen. Cut them from the picture and get to know and support your local farmers.
  4. Sweet summer memories. Many people, like Christina, make a day of berry picking, packing a picnic lunch and inviting friends and family members to spend a day in the country together. Farms often provide picnic tables, tours, and a chance to shop for other locally produced items. Some farms also offer hay rides, gift shops, and restaurants. Christina says, "Sweet Berry Farms has a maze in the summer and fall. They also have farm animals to feed, and they sell homemade ice cream and popsicles, which were delish!"

Storage, Prep, and Cooking of Berries

Once you've gathered your berries, proper care and storage can help prevent premature spoilage. Keep berries unwashed and in the refrigerator until they're ready to be eaten. Try to eat or process berries within two or three days for the best flavor.

Berries make a tasty snack and are associated with a long list of health benefits. They pack a huge nutritional punch, containing an exceptionally large portion of phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber for their small size.

But berries aren't just for snacking. "Whatever we didn't eat," says Christina, "we used to bake strawberry cinnamon muffins, yum!" There also are simple recipes for those with culinary fears or an aversion to baking and canning. Try out the following recipes with your berry bounty and enjoy the warm, lazy days of summer with the sweet and juicy fruits of your labor.

Each recipe serves four.

Independence Day Blueberry Parfait

  • 1 prepared angel food cake
  • 1/4 cup red currant jelly
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup strawberries, quartered
  • 12 ounces vanilla yogurt

With serrated knife, cut angel food cake into 1/4-inch slices (you'll probably have leftover cake). Spread jelly on seven slices of cake and top with seven more slices. Trim dark crusts. Using a star-shaped cookie cutter, cut stars from four of the jelly sandwiches. Cut remaining three sandwiches into 3/4-inch squares.

Place the half of the cake squares, half of the berries, and three-fourths of the yogurt into four glasses, dividing equally. Top with the other half of the cake squares and berries, and a few dollops of yogurt. Place a star sandwich on the top.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white or fruit vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon green onion, minced
  • 10 ounces spinach, rinsed and dried
  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1/4 cup almonds, blanched and slivered

For the dressing, whisk together the first seven ingredients in a medium bowl. Cover and chill for one hour. To prepare the salad, combine the spinach, strawberries, and almonds (reserve four tablespoons of almonds). Pour in dressing and toss salad. Refrigerate for 10 minutes before serving. Divide evenly into four bowls and sprinkle remaining almonds on top.