In a normal season, the berry harvest is like a parade. First come the sweet juicy strawberries, then raspberries with their great texture and tartness, and then the dark, earthy and almost-universal blueberries.
This year, harvests are progressing a little differently, and Beth Dooley, author of "Minnesota's Bounty: the Farmers' Market Cookbook," is here to help us paint the picture. She speaks with Tom Crann of MPR's All Things Considered. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
TOM CRANN: What's different this season?
BETH DOOLEY: Everything is coming in at once because of the weather. We got such a slow start to the season. It was rainy, it was cold. Nothing was coming out and then all of a sudden, it got hot. And the berries all flooded the markets at once, which is a cook's dream and also kind of a dilemma.
CRANN: Let's talk about raspberries first.
DOOLEY: What I love is that our growers are getting into some of the heritage raspberries that you don't see in the stores. We're seeing golden raspberries, we're seeing red raspberries, we're seeing lovely pinkish raspberries. And there are black raspberries, but those are different from blackberries. You can tell the difference because raspberries have a sort of hollow cap. When you pull it off the stem it leaves a hollow. Blackberries have a filled stem and that's the difference. Their tastes are similar.
I think the blackberry is lovely but it's a little more floral, a little milder than the raspberries which tend to be very sweet-tart at the same time.
CRANN: The big three -- strawberries, raspberries, blueberries -- are all in now?
DOOLEY: They're all in now. Right.
CRANN: Let's talk about some of the lesser-known varieties, also in at the same time?
DOOLEY: Currants are coming in. I've seen more at the market -- both the gem-like red and pale yellow. They remind me of cranberries in flavor, and so you want make sure you use a little bit of sugar when you're working with them. They're wonderful, just as cranberries are, in muffins and breads and things like that. Tiny and juicy, they make terrific jellies and jams. They are very perishable which explains why you don't see them in stores.
Gooseberries, tart and acidic, you never see these in the stores but they're great in cobblers and jellies and jams.
Elderberries: Tiny, very black, purple berries are astringent and harsh tasting, and most often made into syrup or wine.
CRANN: Where are the best the best places to find them right now?
DOOLEY: Farmers' markets. They're exploding with berries. The growers are getting very adventuresome so you'll see all different colors of currants. You'll find all different colors of raspberries.
The other thing I've seen, which is really interesting to me coming from New Jersey, is that we're seeing the high-bush blueberries, which are the big, fat, juicy blueberries. These are more familiar to us because those are the ones that are cultivated along with the wild, or low-bush, blueberries -- the tiny, tart sweet-sweet berries.
Those are the ones that you typically find when you're off picking berries up along the north shore. I'm finding that a lot of those growers are now foraging and picking those and selling those as well.
CRANN: What makes the local berries in season better than the berries that we can get all year now in the supermarket?
DOOLEY: First of all, flavor. They're that much fresher. Berries are very perishable. That's why we don't see many black raspberries coming in from California or Mexico. They don't hold very well.
CRANN: They can't make the trip?
DOOLEY: They can't make the trip. And because you get so much variety. When berries are grown mass-cultivated, you don't have people growing them for the kinds of variety. They want to focus on one that grows really well and is easy to ship.
When you have fresh, local berries that are available right away, you want to get your hands on them because these farmers have taken such trouble to provide that kind of diversity that we want in our diets, and also the kinds of flavor that we can't get otherwise.
CRANN: Generally, we think of berries as the sweet treat, certainly appropriate for desserts: pies, sauces, even muffins. But increasingly we're seeing berries in savory dishes. For those who haven't tried that, give us an example of something we can do that is more savory.
DOOLEY: Salads are a great place to start. I love using raspberries, strawberries and blueberries in salads with greens, like arugula, which has such a wonderful peppery bite. Then again, you have these intense flavors of peppery and sour and sweet all together in a salad. It really makes a vibrant combination. The same thing happens with the colors, too. You have beautiful colors and those wonderful flavors all together at once.
I also like to throw berries into a braise when I'm braising a chicken breast or if I'm making a lamb dish. To just finish it with a light berry sauce is really nice because a lot of those berries have that kind of lemony flavor. Rather than using lemon juice on a chicken or lamb, I'll use berries instead.
CRANN: They're kind of delicate. They're in season now. If people want to keep this going, what's the best way to store them? Can you freeze them?
DOOLEY: Yes. Freezing them is really the best. Because by freezing them you sort of keep them from deteriorating and preserve their flavors. When you go to thaw them, they are not going to have much texture. If you freeze them, know that you're going to want to use them in a cooked dish, or that you're going to want to make a jam out of them.
The nice thing is by freezing them now, you're going to get them at the peak of their season. Buy lots of them. Freeze lots of them. Then in the doldrums of January, when you've got nothing to do, make jam, make preserves and you've got this beautiful fresh flavor.