- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The summer blueberry season is here for the tasting. Fresh blueberries are already in most markets across the country in quantity, at reasonable prices, in what looks like one of the largest blueberry harvests ever in the United States.

The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, reporting on the bumper crop, says that blueberries are grown in 38 states — they’re one of three fruits considered native to North America (the others are cranberries and Concord grapes).

Commercially cultivated highbush blueberries come into season first and are expected to be at their peak through mid-September. They are picked by hand, while the wild blueberries that grow mostly in Maine and eastern Canada and usually have their peak season in August, are harvested from their low bushes with wooden rakes.

Researchers continue to register evidence of blueberries’ value as disease fighters, whether they’re fresh, frozen, canned or dried. From the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston, for example, Ronald Prior has reported on the high antioxidant levels of blueberries, and James Joseph has found evidence of the benefits of blueberries in brain function.

Whatever the nutrition benefits — including their vitamin C and fiber — blueberries’ flavor and juicy bite keep them high on shopping lists and in diners’ sights. Many of us are happy just to eat blueberries as is by the spoonful, but cooks appreciate their function as an ingredient in many ways.

Don’t be shy of adding sugar when you cook blueberries, food writer-scientist and television personality Shirley Corriher told a recent gathering of food media in New York City. Sugar can act as a structural preservative and help the berries keep their shape when they’re cooked and when the heat would otherwise break them down — “chefs use this trick all the time,” she said.

If you sprinkle sugar on sliced fruit, it will help your fruit pies not to boil over, she added.

More tips: When you’re using blueberries in cakes, cupcakes or muffins, sprinkle the blueberries on top of the batter and they’ll distribute themselves during the baking. If blueberries all sink to the bottom of a cake, the batter is too thin to hold them, so next time make a thicker batter. You don’t need to stir the berries into pancake or waffle batter, either; pour the batter onto the griddle, then dot with berries and finish cooking.

The presence of other ingredients can sometimes cause blueberries to lose their blue color. Miss Corriher suggested countering baking soda, for example, with the acidic effect of lemon: “A trace of lemon juice will take care of weird colors,” she said. On the other hand, if the recipe tends to the acidic side, a tiny bit of baking soda will help keep the berries blue.

Here is a recipe for making the most of peak-season blueberries. It starts with a same basic double-fruit filling: a simple toss of fresh blueberries and nectarines, sugar and cornstarch. Complementary flavors and colors make the blueberry-nectarine combo a summer winner.

The spiced blueberry-nectarine tartlets give the cook an edge. The pastry is subtly spiked with just enough cardamom to make the flavor intriguing, and the trick of getting the lightest, flakiest crust comes from the double chilling: The pastry dough is chilled before rolling, and again before it goes into the oven.

Another cooks’ secret is that the fruit filling rests on a bed of cookie crumbs: These add flavor while they soak up extra juices as the filling bakes.

Spiced blueberry-nectarine tartlets

This recipe was developed by pastry chef Cynthia DePersio of Fascino, Montclair, N.J., for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. The preparation time is 35 minutes, the chill time is 60 minutes, and the baking time is 22 to 25 minutes.

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon salt

1½ sticks (6 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut in 1-inch cubes

6 gingersnap cookies or 8 vanilla wafers, crushed (about 1/3 cup)

3 cups fresh blueberries

1 ripe nectarine, diced

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon heavy cream

In a food processor or large bowl, combine flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, cardamom and salt. Add butter and pulse or blend until mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons cold water over flour; process 3 to 4 seconds or mix lightly until dough starts to come together (if dough is dry, sprinkle with a few drops of water and pulse or mix a few more times until beginning to hold together). Wrap in plastic wrap and press to form a flat disk. Chill until cold, about 30 minutes.

Divide chilled pastry dough into 6 equal pieces. On a lightly floured board, roll each piece in a circle about 6 inches in diameter and 1/8-inch thick. Transfer pastry circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon 1 tablespoon cookie crumbs into the center of each circle.

In a large bowl, toss blueberries, nectarine, cornstarch and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar. Mound fruit evenly in each pastry circle on top of cookie crumbs, leaving a 1-inch border of pastry. Bring the 1-inch pastry border up and over filling. In a small bowl, stir together egg yolk and cream. Brush pastry lightly with egg mixture; if desired, sprinkle with sugar. Cover lightly and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Position oven rack in lower third of oven; preheat to 425 degrees. Bake tartlets until fruit lightly bubbles and crusts are golden, 22 to 25 minutes. Cool 15 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 552 cal., 73 g carbo., 26 g total fat (15 g saturated).

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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