Dale Carson grows blackberries in her backyard.

The Original Finger Food

Dale Carson
6/2/12

It's the growing season for berries—the original finger food. This is one snack you can throw back guilt-free.

When my family moved into this house in Connecticut, there were wild strawberries everywhere and a huge patch of raspberries. Today the strawberries have thinned out, and the raspberry patch is gone. We planted blackberries and blueberries, which are doing just fine.

I wonder where plants go when they move off like that?

When I was just a little girl, my mom and her friends would take me "berryin’" with them to their secret places. We had both baskets and pails. The baskets had to be lined with grape or maple leaves, so we didn’t stain the baskets or lose any berries through the weave. The event involved a picnic and lots of talk about pie crusts, compotes, slump, fritters, breads and all manner of uses for these little treasures. Most of the time it was wild blueberries we were after, yet there were many well-hidden brambly areas of raspberry and blackberries to raid. Wild blueberries are often referred to as Huckleberries, which are only slightly different—they are a little less sweet and contain a seed.

Strawberries were entirely different to harvest—the wild ones grew so low to the ground, you almost had to sit in the patch to pick them, as bending over constantly is hard on the back. Wild strawberries are very small compared to the commercial varieties, and they are much more flavorful. Blackberries are a family favorite here—they are large and full of flavor, best eaten as you pick. Of course most berries taste the freshest when just picked and none have a long shelf-life. Don’t buy berries at the market thinking they will ripen later, they won’t. I see a lot of strawberries that just are not ripe yet. I pick the darkest reds with no white on the berry. Shake the box, especially blueberries. If they don’t move about, there is probably a couple of rottens in there on the bottom. Chokecherry berries are not good for eating out of your hand as you pick. They are best made into jams and jelly or pounded and dried for tea and other uses. Juniper berries are also for drying and used to flavor foods. I like to use them with meat in stews, crushed first to release aroma. They are very bitter if eaten raw.

All berries contain ellagic acid, an antioxidant that helps prevent carcinogen damage to our cells, which carry our DNA. Ellagic acid can reduce damage caused by free radicals, which are harmful molecules that can damage healthy cells.  Berries are also high in vitamin C, especially cranberries, which is one of the strongest antioxidants that helps reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and infections. Both cranberries and blueberries are given credit in aiding bladder and urinary infections by keeping bacteria in check. If you drink cranberry juice, do be aware of the high sugar content. Health food stores carry pure juice or concentrate.

When you make a berry pie of any sort, you need to thicken the filling so it doesn’t run all over the place when you cut it. One way is to use a little—a tablespoon or two—of tapioca, or some corn starch in the same amount. Fresh picked berries freeze beautifully if you spread them on a cookie sheet, not touching each other, then put them in a thick freezer bag.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Slump

4 cups fresh red rhubarb, cut in ½-inch pieces—only red, no green

3 cups fresh strawberries, hulled, cut in half

½ cup flour

1-1/2 cup sugar, or equivalent

2 tablespoons butter, cubed

Dumpling Crust:

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup warm water

2/3 cup light vegetable oil

1 tablespoon milk

1 tablespoon sugar or equivalent

Optional: vanilla ice cream

Combine sugar and flour, fold in strawberries and rhubarb gently. Put this mixture into a greased baking dish and dot with butter.

Dumpling crust: Put flour, salt, oil and water in a bowl and stir until it forms a ball. Roll this out between waxed paper into a rectangle, which will fit the top of the baking pan. Invert top sheet of waxed paper and gently peel off. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Set oven to 475 degrees and bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Serve with a little ice cream if desired.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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