Plenty of things alert us to the fact that summer has arrived but perhaps the roadside strawberry sellers are the biggest giveaway. There is something wonderfully summery about fruit purveyors lounging in worn deckchairs with heads buried in dog eared books alongside their makeshift trailer shops. Their languid reading is interrupted every now and again when a car pulls up and the strawberry exchange for money takes place. I love to hear my own kids shout “stop” if we see someone with a plastic table overflowing with strawberries and it warms my heart that their cries for fruit are still just as loud as they are when they see the golden arches. From a father’s point of view I rarely refuse the shout for strawberries but often choose to ignore the pleas for a cheeseburger. As takeaway food goes, strawberries are possibly the perfect choice and with Wimbledon approaching the annual spotlight will shine upon the age old tradition of strawberries and cream. As lovely as the strawberry is though, it always strikes me that we neglect the other berries because of it. The raspberry gets a bit of a look in but we largely fail to take advantage of all the other wonderful fruits available at this time of year and the diverse things you can do with them besides just smothering them with cream. There’s the entire family of berries to consider along with the peaches, nectarines, plums and other stone fruits.
It really is worth making the most of these months when fresh homegrown produce is available to buy. Berries are full of goodness and antioxidants and are a tasty, healthy option. We have plenty grown locally in the Irish countryside and most are in season now. Sadly we are so used to seeing summer fruits available year round in the supermarkets that we mistakenly assume that the berries we buy in November are similar to those we have now and therefore take the produce very much for granted at this time of year. Nothing could be further from the truth. Usually the off season types tend to be more acidic, forced and nowhere near as sweet and juicy as you will get naturally in the summer.
The other common problem with summer fruit is our lack of imagination. They are often relegated to dessert and we might think it sophisticated if mentioned as a starter ingredient and some are even suspicious if they are used in a warm main course dish. We’re just very unadventurous when it comes down to it. I’ve been totally inspired while watching chefs on TV tossing berries in salads, grilling them and even putting them in hot gravies along with popping them in drinks or using them for all sorts of exotic desserts. I’ve enjoyed pears poached with blue cheese and baked lamb chops with warmed plums. The possibilities are endless.
I personally love berries at breakfast time. Little bursts of summer first thing in the morning are thoroughly uplifting. Strawberries, raspberries, fresh cherries and even blueberries work really well with breakfast drop scones or pancakes. They are delicious when made into compote and served with muesli and Greek yoghurt. I love this as it takes that gravelly, dusty taste away from the muesli that I’m told is good for me! Berry compote is very simple to make and keeping a jar on hand is a great summer standby. As a rough rule of thumb use approximately 1 tablespoon of caster sugar for every 100g of berries and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Just pop all the ingredients in a pot and heat gently until the berries begin to soften and release their juice. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until you have a runny, jammy mixture. You can serve it warm or cold and it will keep in a lidded container in the fridge for up to a week. Some people use a little corn flour to thicken it up, others add wine or ginger for an added taste kick and I have a friend who substitutes honey for the sugar to save on calories. Try your own variation and personalise it any way you like. Compote can also be used as a desert garnish. If I’m having a particularly healthy morning I’ll pour cranberry juice into the blender and then throw in some berries and blitz. If the fruit has been in the fridge overnight it makes a great cold thick juice drink. You could put a banana through it to make it into a proper smoothie if you wanted to. Blackcurrants, gooseberries and blackberries are also great summer fruits and shouldn’t be forgotten.
When buying berries look closely for soft or moldy fruit as this can quickly contaminate the whole lot. Berries are highly perishable and should not be exposed to sunlight or kept at room temperature. If stored in the fridge unwashed and loosely packed with the damaged berries discarded, they should keep for 2 to 4 days. If you have grown your own then freezing berries is a good way to preserve them for use in baked dishes. Blueberries tend to be a little tougher if washed before freezing, and whole blackberries should be frozen spread out individually and then transferred to an airtight freezer container. Strawberries may be frozen sliced, with or without sugar. Adding sugar will help preserve the color but remember when using pre-sweetened berries, reduce the amount of sugar or sweetener called for in any given recipe.
You will have to shop around to get good value but markets and farm gates are usually less expensive and if you can find a ‘pick your own’ farm it’s a great way to spend some family time. We are very fortunate in South Tipperary to have ‘The Apple Farm’ which has a great range of Apple Juices & Soft Fruits. There is always a great welcome at the Apple Farm for all the Family with lots to do including – feeding the Donkey! I wish you a ‘berry’ good week.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers
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