Blueberries were providing Americans with their antioxidant fix long before acai berries became popular as a superfood. Native Americans relied on the berries for a number of different purposes, said Jennifer Divello of Patty’s Berries and Bunches in Mattituck on Long Island.
“They would actually use blueberries for many illnesses,” says Divello, whose mother Patty converted the family’s potato fields into a 'you-pick' berry farm in the '80s. “They would grind the leaves and the roots together to cure a lot of sickness, but they would use the juice from the blueberry to cure the common cough.”
She added that the uses also went beyond the nutritional and medicinal. “[Settlers] would boil blueberries with milk to get gray paint, and then they would also boil blueberries with sage and indigo to get blue paint,” Divello said. “And that’s the color they would all traditionally paint their houses.”
While the berries are no longer used as a primary ingredient in paint, they are the second most popularly consumed berry in the United States. (Strawberries are the most popular.)
The season for blueberries is nearly over, so now is the time to appreciate the locally grown fruit before it’s gone from farmers markets. Divello shared her tips for picking out the sweetest berry.
“I like to tell our customers the darker the blue, the better,” she said. On the bush, berries start as white before turning pink, red, purple and, finally, a ripe blue. “That is when you want to pick them.”
As for the size of the berry, Divello explained that is dependent on variety. “[Jersey] is the type that many bakers prefer for muffins,” she said. “ It’s smaller, but it’s sweet. You can’t really relate size to sweetness as much as color and type.”
The biggest pest when it comes to growing blueberries are birds. “The catbird and the red-winged blackbird will clear out an entire crop overnight,” said Divello. Farmers in the area tried a number of methods in their fields to deter the birds. One attempt, which involved a propane tank, worked to keep the birds away, but was far less popular with the farm’s neighbors.
(Photo: Blueberry bushes under the net at Patty's Berries and Bunches/Jennifer Divello)
“Every five minutes it would make this big boom and all the birds would go flying away, but as annoying as it was for the birds, it was [also annoying] for the people that lived around the area,” admitted Divello.
Instead, the age-old method of netting the bushes proved most effective, and Patty’s Berries and Bunches installed one that covers all the bushes. “It’s one of the biggest [nets] I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Occasionally there are a couple of birds that’ll get caught, but we do let them out at the end of the day. They love being in there.”
While blueberries are vulnerable to birds, Divello explained that they are more mold resistant than raspberries and blackberries because they are less porous. “And another thing that I really like about blueberries is that they don’t get as much bugs,” she said.
As for her favorite method of eating blueberries, Divello in true farmer-style opts to keep things simple — she likes to freeze them and eat them by the handful. “I call them nature’s ice cream capsules,” she said.
For another take, try Amy Eddings' recipe below for blueberry cobbler.
by Amy Eddings
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tbl cornstarch
- 1/8 teas salt, or to taste
- 1/8 teas cinnamon
- 6 cups fresh blueberries
- 1 1/2 teas grated lemon zest plus 1 Tbl juice from 1 lemon
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 2 Tbl stone ground cornmeal
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teas baking powder
- 1/4 teas baking soda
- 1/4 teas salt
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 teas vanilla extract
- 1/8 teas ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375
MAKE THE FILLING: Stir sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt together in large bowl. Add blueberries. Toss them gently with a rubber spatula or large fork until they are coated. Add the lemon zest and the lemon juice and toss, distributing the zest thoroughly. Pour the berries into a 9-inch glass pie pan. Place the pie pan on a baking sheet to catch any spills, and bake until the filling bubbles, 25 minutes.
MAKE THE TOPPING: Whisk flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients — the melted butter, buttermilk and vanilla. Just before the berries come out of the oven, add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring with a fork or rubber spatula until they are just combined. Remove berries from the oven, increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Plop 6 or 7 equal-sized dollops of dough on top of the hot, bubbling berries. Space them about an inch apart. Sprinkle the tops of the biscuits with 2 teaspoons of sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Bake 15-18 minutes until the filling is bubbling and the biscuits are brown.
Let cool for about 20 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.