Five years ago Farmer John (my husband) planted a row of 5 lowbush blueberry bushes along the front fence of our garden. He wisely chose varieties that ripen at different times (2 early, 1 mid-season, and 2 late) so we would have a long supply of fresh berries. When he planted the shrubs they were literally twigs with leaves. I thought we’d have berries in about 20 years! The next year they sort of turned into wee little bushes and I think we each ate about 5 berries. The third year we got a bowlful from the early- and mid-season ripeners, while the late-season ripeners took their sweet time maturing. That year we discovered that we had to net the entire stand because the deer came by and ate our bushes along with the few berries that were on them. Not cool!
Last year we got a few quarts throughout the season, which we mostly enjoyed on top of our morning cereal. There really is something sublime about a big ol’ bowlful of Trader Joe’s bran flakes topped with big, juicy blueberries from your own back yard! Unfortunately that year we learned a hard lesson about how to best net the berries. We had surrounded the stand with bamboo and steel poles upon which we hung bird netting. We then used galvanized aluminum landscaping pins to pin the netting to the ground every few inches. Twice during the season a snake managed to get himself tangled in the netting along the bottom edge. I felt terrible about accidentally killing two beautiful, beneficial black rat snakes, especially since our yard was overrun with moles and voles last year and we needed all the beneficial snakes we could get! This year we put up edging around the outside of the netting so that anyone slithering by couldn’t contact the netting – so far so good, no casualties out there.
This spring the blueberries were covered in blossoms – all the bushes, including the late-ripening heretofore slackers. I mean thousands of blossoms. I’m pretty sure that each and every one of those blossoms matured into a plump, gorgeous berry, because we got so many berries we gave some away, had 2 friends pick all they wanted and finally just gave up and let the birds, squirrels and bunnies have at them.
So what to do with all that bounty, especially when neither of us particularly care for baked goods with blueberries, such as pies, tarts or cakes. Obviously we’ve been chowing down on fresh berries on our cereal, but that only goes so far to make use of some 20 quarts of berries! Below are some of the things I’ve done with this year’s crop. Links will take you to recipes. Even if you don’t have a blueberry patch in your back yard, there are lots of you-pick blueberry farms you can visit to get your own supply of fresh berries to savor. I hope you enjoy some of my ideas for using them.
1. I used our first harvest to make some very yummy whole wheat blueberry pancakes (the leftovers of which freeze quite well for quick breakfasts later on).
2. I made fresh blueberry sauce to top waffles and ice cream. Our bushes are shaded in the morning (which is when it is cool enough to go picking), and the first few times I picked berries I realized I was taking some berries that looked ripe in the shade, but were really a day or two underripe. Making a fresh berry sauce is a great way to use those tart underripe berries, since you are going to add sugar to the sauce anyway! Simply heat berries in a saucepan with sugar to taste (try 2 cups berries and about 1/3 cup sugar to start with). Simmer until berries pop and the sauce thickens – you can help them along with light pressure from a potato masher at the beginning. Blueberries are so full of pectin I find I don’t need to use thickeners such as cornstarch. The sauce will get thicker as it cools, so cook it until it is almost as thick as you’d like.
3. I put up some absolutely awesome blueberry-blackberry jam, I think the best I’ve ever made.
4. I have a batch of blueberry-basil vinegar steeping in the cupboard, waiting to reach perfection before I jar it up and process it for storage. I’ve already used it to make a fabulous blueberry-walnut tossed salad.
5. I put up a batch of sweet-tart blueberry-lemon sauce. It is fabulous over Greek yogurt, and it would also be great over vanilla ice cream, lemon or berry sorbet or pound cakes.
6. The rest of the berries have been tucked away in the freezer for later use. Freezing berries is super easy if you follow these simple steps: gently wash berries in a 10-1 water and vinegar solution (the vinegar zaps molds and bacteria on the berries); thoroughly rinse berries and lay them on a clean towel in a single layer to dry; pick over berries to eliminate any that are soft, unripe or split; place dry berries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet; place baking sheet in freezer for about 2 hours; quickly transfer frozen berries to quart freezer bags; label, seal and store for up to 1 year. This method also works for hulled whole strawberries, blackberries or raspberries. Contrary to what a canning manual will tell you, you do not need to pack berries in sugar or syrup. If you take the time to completely dry the berries and freeze them individually on a baking sheet, they won’t clump together in the freezer bags and you can easily remove just what you need. If you freeze them with sugar or syrup, you’ll have a sugary brick that you need to use all at once.
Frozen berries are great in smoothies and cocktails, can be used to make jams and jellies (thaw them first), and can also be used in many recipes that call for fresh berries (follow recipe instructions as to whether you need to thaw first). I have a friend who uses them on his cereal or oatmeal every morning, but that’s a little too cold for me!