by Ken Haedrich
from issue #10
You could argue that the only berry worth eating is plump, sun-drenched, and straight off the vine, or branch, as the case may be. I know this because I’ve had more than one argument with a lovable old mutt who would do just that. Pancake batter at the ready, there I’d go, barefoot, through the dew-damp morning grass to snatch a cupful of jewels from the high bush blues, and there our dog Stina would be, Euell Gibbons incarnate, daintily nibbling away at every berry within reach. If I spoke crossly, or suggested that this was unacceptable behavior for a canine, she’d simply roll her eyes in the long-suffering manner dogs of misguided masters will, and get right back to business.
Stina knew all she wanted to know about eating fresh berries; for us two-legged creatures, finding berry bliss isn’t so simple. We want our berries fresh; we also want variety, versatility, and great flavor. Which reminds me why I’m so fond of quick berry sauces.
A quick berry sauce may be cooked or uncooked, but either way, it’s always just one or two easy steps from freshly picked. Unlike complex savory sauces, which are based on myriad ingredients and lengthy reduction, berry sauces are all about finding the easiest way to release the peak of flavor that’s already there. That’s already there is the key phrase; drop-dead ripeness is essential. A quick pass through the food processor with a dash of sugar, as in the case with raspberries and blackberries, may be all they need. When they need a little more of a nudge and change of texture, as blueberries do, a quick simmer is called for. Lemon juice is often added for sparkle. And, if appropriate, a dash of spirits.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s how I came up with one of my favorite, quick, not-quite-berry fruit sauces: Down our dirt road, in a top-secret location, I discovered a patch of wild red currants. To make a sauce, I gently boiled (for about 8 minutes) a cup’s worth with the juice of an orange and 1⁄3 cup sugar—much more sugar, given their tartness, than you’d use for most berry sauces. When the mixture became syrupy, I removed it from the heat and stirred in a few more fresh currants to add texture and identity to the sauce. That’s all there was to it.
Let’s look at one of the easiest of all berry sauces, raspberry. Take about a pint of ripe raspberries. Pick them over, removing debris, bugs, or moldy berries (even one can taint the flavor of the sauce). I don’t wash the raspberries, lest trapped moisture water down the sauce. Purée in the food processor with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, until smooth. Strain; stir in a teaspoon or two of lemon juice or raspberry liqueur. Cover and refrigerate.
Blackberries are handled in the same manner; strawberries, almost the same way. Let’s make two strawberry sauces, one uncooked, the other cooked and thickened with cornstarch.
Strawberry sauce, two versions
Rinse and hull a quart of ripe strawberries. Using the food processor, make a purée with slightly more than half of the berries, 3 tablespoons sugar, and the juice of half a lemon. Transfer to a bowl. Coarsely chop by hand the remaining berries and fold them into the purée. To make the thickened version, do the same thing, using 2 tablespoons of sugar. Mix the third tablespoon of sugar with 2 teaspoons of cornstarch. Transfer the purée to a small, nonreactive saucepan, and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Slowly bring to a boil, then boil for 1 minute; the sauce will lose its chalky appearance and turn shiny. Serve hot, warm, or cold.
A sauce for shortcakes
This last one is an old favorite I use for warm berry shortcakes à la mode. I usually make it with at least half blueberries; the other half can be blackberries or raspberries.
First, bake your shortcakes; you can make the sauce while they’re in the oven. You will need 1 pint each of two kinds of berries. Put half of each into a medium nonreactive saucepan. Add the juice of one orange, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes, covered. Mix 3 tablespoons sugar with 1⁄2 tablespoon cornstarch and stir into the berries. Bring to a full boil, then lower heat and boil gently for 1 minute, stirring. Remove from the heat and cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining fresh berries.
To serve, split the shortcake biscuits in half. Ladle the sauce generously over the bottom, and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Cover with the top half of the biscuit and serve at once.
And that—at least for us two-legged creatures—is as close as you’ll come to berry bliss.