SHARE SUPERFOODS: BERRIES
SUMMER BERRIES are the off-the-bush equivalent of Jelly Beans for kids. These incredibly nutritious, pop-in-your-mouth snacks come in a surprising variety of colors, textures and flavors: from delicate, light golden "white raspberries" to firm, indigo-skinned blueberries, puckery tart blackberries, and lusciously sweet strawberries. Berries are abundant in the Bay Area throughout most of the summer months, and while they are around, it's remarkably easy to find a place for them in just about every meal of the day--breakfast to dessert. What we commonly think of as "berries," however, are usually something quite different from a true berry, which is a fruit with seeds and pulp that come from a single ovary of the plant. Tomatoes and grapes are true berries. Strawberries are classified by botanists as aggregate, "false fruits" with seeds from different ovaries of a single flower. Those seeds on the outside of a strawberry are actually individual fruits ripened in separate ovaries. Raspberries and blackberries are also aggregate fruits. And blueberries, though not aggregate, are also not a true berry, as they are formed from more than a single ovary.
HEALTH BENEFITS Because berries are sweet and thus a favorite of bugs, they are typically grown with lots of pesticides. It is important to buy organic berries, especially for young children--strawberries in particular are one of the most pesticide-laden foods. Pediatricians generally thus do not recommend feeding strawberries to young children until they are at least a year old, as the berries can be highly allergenic, causing a rash where they have contacted the skin and/or hives over other parts of the body. Berries of all types are wonderfully rich in a wide spectrum of nutrients. Though all berries are low in calories, high in fiber, and contain elevated levels of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, each stands out with a unique nutritional profile. Strawberries are high in Vitamin C; raspberries are particularly high in antioxidants; blackberries have polyphenols and anthocyanins, which are thought to prevent cancer and heart disease. Blueberries are the superstars of the berry world, packing the nutrient punch of all other berries combined. Indeed, blueberries are among the fruits with the highest antioxidant activity.
SOURCING IT Though berries can be found just about everywhere from Costco to your neighborhood corner produce stand, the best, just-picked, perfectly ripe berries are found at the farmers' markets. Supermarket berries might be cheaper, but they're often hard and tasteless compared with ones from farmers' markets, because they're typically picked too early while still under-ripe. All types of fresh, organic berries can be expensive--alternatives to pesticides and herbicides can be labor-intensive-- which is another reason to buy them when they are in peak season and most abundant. You can also save some money by going straight to the source. For a fun summer outing with the kids, take a drive down the coast on Highway 1, just south of Half Moon Bay to pick your own organic strawberries at Swanton Berry Farm. Look for fruit that is firm, but not hard. You also want to see bright, rich color and to smell the fragrance of berries. Indeed, a strawberry should smell like a strawberry-- the intensity of the fragrance indicates intensity of flavor.
AT HOME Aside from blueberries, most berries are highly perishable and should be consumed shortly after purchase. Soft-fleshed berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are both perishable and delicate and thus require gentle handling. Blueberries are a little heartier and will keep longer. Berries are delicious when scattered atop a bowl of piping hot oatmeal for breakfast. Or, for a simple summer dessert, top any type of fresh berries with Cowgirl Creamery's crème fraiche--or for a vegan option, coconut milk--and drizzle with agave nectar. Berries can also be folded into salads for a surprising and refreshing balancing of flavors and textures. And, of course they can be baked in muffins, quick breads, pies, and tarts. Older, slightly bruised berries can be frozen for use in smoothies.
EATING OUT While out and about, look for berries featured in Tartine's perennial breakfast favorite, bread pudding, which in the summertime often shares the spotlight with an assortment of fresh berries. Mission Pie has an outstanding strawberry/ rhubarb pie. And of course, you'll find berries livening up the salads, entrées, and desserts of all of San Francisco's best seasonal restaurants.
Superfoods: Berries was published in the Summer 2009 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2009 Edible San Francisco.