Karen Payeur is wrestling with the kind of problem she’d love to have every year.
The blueberry bushes at her pick-your-own operation in Sanford have painted the landscape beautiful streaks of blue. She hasn’t been able to mow yet, because the branches are so heavy with berries they’re sagging between the rows.
“This is the best year we’ve ever had in 14 years,” Payeur said, becoming a little more giddy the more she talked about her 2012 harvest. “It’s crazy.”
Allen Crabtree of Crabtree’s Blueberries in Sebago has a bumper crop of highbush blueberries this year as well.
“I have never seen so many blueberries,” Crabtree said. “We’ve had a pick-your-own operation since 2001, and this is by far the best crop we have had, the most berries on the bushes.”
It’s that time of year when a blue tongue becomes a Mainer’s best fashion statement. We’ve gathered great blueberry-inspired recipes for you from local chefs, enough so that you could plan a whole meal, from salad to dessert, around this juicy summer pleasure. We’ve even thrown in a Blueberry Cobbler cocktail.
These recipes use both wild and cultivated berries, and which ones you prefer are a matter of taste.
Wild berries spray your taste buds with a touch of tart along with sweet. They freeze better, and are preferred for baked goods because they don’t “bleed” into batter when they hit the oven.
Because they’re smaller, they have more skin than pulp, and the skin is where the antioxidants that help protect your health reside.
Highbush berries do come in smaller varieties, but generally they are a bit larger and a little sweeter than wild berries.
The highbush blueberry harvest is under way, and in places like Union and Ellsworth, wild blueberry growers have just started raking berries for the fresh market. Blueberry barrens farther down east will follow by Aug. 1. (Just 1 percent or less of wild Maine blueberries are sold fresh; most are destined for the freezer and then are packaged or added to other products later.)
“I think, overall, the consensus is that everybody feels we have a good to better-than-average crop,” said David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, who has been visiting the eastern blueberry barrens. “The size is very good. We’ve had very good moisture conditions. Pollination was fairly good in most spots. I know there’s been a few hot days, but overall it’s been fairly wet and cool, so the berries are doing very good quality wise.”
Last year’s wild blueberry harvest reached 83 million pounds, and expectations are that this year it will reach 90 to 95 million pounds. That’s not too far from the bumper crop of 110 million pounds growers saw in 2000.
Just like strawberries, some blueberries ripened a little early this year. A couple of highbush growers were open to picking about a week to 10 days early, while others said their crops were right on time.
Payeur said her berries were almost two weeks early this year, and she wonders if that means an earlier end to the season.
“It all depends on what the weather is going to do,” she said. “If we have cool evenings, it may slow the ripening down.”
Crabtree said he opened to the public just a couple of days early this year. Half of the six varieties of blueberries he grows – the Blues, Berkeleys and Little Giants – are ready for picking. The Jerseys, normally ripened by this time, were a little slow coming along.
Crabtree said the weather was optimal for highbush blueberries this year: Mild winter, good pollination, rain when the bushes needed it, followed by hot and sunny days ideal for ripening the berries.
“I think we’re going to have a very healthy season and probably a very long season,” Crabtree said. “We normally pick with late varieties well into September and into early October when the first frost comes, and I think we’ll be doing that again this year.”
Frank Card, owner of Card’s Fruit Farm in Bowdoin, said his early berries were right on time, and with 7,000 plants and 53 varieties, he expects a continuous supply right through early September.
“Our quality usually is always good. We’ve never sprayed,” Card said. “The insect counts are way down because the plants are so healthy. And the quantity is superb. This is probably one of our best years for quantity, and it’s mostly based on having a mild winter.”
Card’s farm, on one of the highest points in Sagadahoc County and just seven miles from the ocean, has its own microclimate that’s good for growing peaches, plums, wild blackberries, blueberries and raspberries.
He expects peaches to be ripe enough for picking beginning this week.
“You can look at the whole Presidential Range while you’re picking your blueberries,” Card said. “A lot of people come up and enjoy it. Some of them bring a picnic.”
John Bozak tends more than 3,000 blueberry bushes on a 75-acre hilltop farm in Lebanon. He said Berry Best Farm’s 10 varieties of berries typically start ripening around July 15, but this year “we started at least 10 days earlier.”
Bozak said blueberry season at his farm usually goes until Labor Day. But this year, who knows?
“It’s very possible we may wind up a week or so earlier, depending on the rest of the summer,” Bozak said. “Mother Nature is in control, not us.”
Following are some chefs’ suggestions for using those blues in a full-course meal:
THIS SALAD comes from Kevin Cunningham, executive chef at The Inn at Brunswick Station, at 4 Noble St. in Brunswick.
“This salad is a great blend of savory and sweet,” he says. “The goat cheese plays well with fruits and vinaigrettes, so the whole salad comes together in each bite. One of my favorites.”
MIXED GREENS AND BERRIES SALAD
Fresh, washed local spring mix
1/3 cup candied pecans
1/3 cup fresh local blueberries
2 ounces of crumbled goat cheese
In a medium bowl, place a large handful of spring mix, the candied pecans and the blueberries.
Add 2 ounces honey balsamic dressing (recipe below). Make sure you shake well if separated.
Toss all ingredients to coat.
Plate by first putting coated greens on large plate. Cover with coated berries and nuts.
Finish with 2 ounces of crumbled goat cheese and serve.
You can also use a store-bought balsamic vinaigrette. Just add a little honey to play with the goat cheese.
They really are good friends – honey and goat cheese, that is.
The salad can also be made with other fruit, such as grilled peaches or strawberries.
HONEY BALSAMIC DRESSING:
Yield: 1 quart
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons clover honey
2 tablespoons shallots, minced extra fine
10 ounces balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 ounces blended oil
Mise en place all ingredients and equipment. Place minced shallots in food processor and process for one minute with mustard and honey. Add balsamic vinegar and turn on food processor.
While the food processor is running, drizzle in first the extra virgin olive oil and then the blended oil.
Transfer into storage vessel and refrigerate. Keeps for 30 days.
If the emulsion breaks, you can reprocess to combine, or just shake well.
BLUEBERRIES AREN’T just for pies and cobblers anymore. Try them in savory entrees as well, such as this duck preparation from Mitchell Kaldrovich, chef at the Sea Glass Restaurant at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth.
SPICE-RUBBED PAN-SEARED DUCK BREAST WITH ORGANIC FARMED VEGETABLES, QUINOA AND BLUEBERRY-RED WINE SAUCE
4 duck breasts
Extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Trim duck breasts and core skin with a sharp knife. Spread spice mix and salt over both sides of the breasts. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Preheat a large cast iron pot. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and place the duck, skin side down, letting the fat render for 10 minutes at slow heat. The skin should be light golden brown. Right before serving, flip the duck for another 2 minutes or longer depending on how you like the duck cooked. Let rest for another minute and serve with the blueberry sauce.
BLUEBERRY-RED WINE SAUCE:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
3 cups red wine
1 1/2 cups fresh highbush blueberries
1/2 cup veal or chicken stock
Combine all ingredients in a double-bottom sauce pan, except the blueberries. Slow simmer until reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add blueberries and season with salt and pepper. Discard the star anise. Reserve.
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 medium zucchini, diced (center with seeds discarded)
1/2 cup fresh English peas
1 cup hon shimeji mushrooms, cleaned
2 cups cooked organic golden quinoa
Fresh chopped garden herbs such as chives, parsley and oregano
Extra virgin olive oil
In a high heat saute pan with a drizzle of olive oil, add the carrots and cook for three minutes. When they begin to caramelize, add the mushrooms and cook for another two minutes, then add the zucchini and peas. Season with salt and pepper, then add the cooked quinoa and fresh herbs.
EMILY DeLOIS, pastry chef at Vignola Cinque Terre in Portland, has created a light Wild Maine Blueberry and Lemon Mascarpone Cheesecake that is a perfect summer dessert. DeLois says the wild Maine blueberry compote is extremely versatile. If you’re not a cheesecake fan, try the compote on a blueberry crisp or on pound cake. If you use it in a savory dish, such as pork or duck, she advises reducing the amount of sugar.
WILD MAINE BLUEBERRY AND LEMON MASCARPONE CHEESECAKE WITH GRAHAM CRACKER CRUST AND FRESH WILD MAINE BLUEBERRY COMPOTE
Serves 16 to 20
1/2 pound butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup graham flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, cream the butter, the sugars and the honey until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon and gradually add to the butter mixture. Scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently, mix until thoroughly combined and the dough comes together. Press the dough into the bottom of a 10-inch spring form pan, creating about a 1/4-inch thick crust. Bake at 350 degrees about 20 minutes, or until it starts to brown. Let the pan cool slightly, and wrap the outside with two to three layers of foil.
1 1/2 pounds Philadelphia cream cheese
1 pound Bel Gioisoso mascarpone
2 cups sugar
11/4 cups sour cream
4 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
Zest of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup fresh wild Maine blueberries
Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, whip the cream cheese, sugar and mascarpone until combined. Add the sour cream and mix one minute, scraping the edges of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs, then the lemon zest and vanilla extract. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, about 30 seconds.
Carefully fold in the fresh wild blueberries and pour into the prepared 10-inch pan lined with foil. Place the pan in a larger pan filled with 1 inch of water. This prevents the cheesecake from cracking and the foil prevents water leaking into the cheesecake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the cheesecake appears set. Remove the cheesecake from the water and chill for several hours before removing from the pan. Top with fresh wild Maine blueberry compote.
6 cups fresh wild Maine blueberries
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup sugar
3 tablepoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Place the blueberries and lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Sift the sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon, mix to combine and add to the wild blueberries. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Remove from the heat until ready for use.
Before digging into all of these delicious blueberry dishes, why not start with a blueberry-themed cocktail? This take on a classic blueberry dessert comes from Steve Lovenguth, former bar manager at Walter’s in Portland.
BLUEBERRY COBBLER COCKTAIL
Muddled blueberries to taste
1/2 ounce Cold River Blueberry Vodka
1/2 ounce Three Olives Vanilla Vodka
1 ounce Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: email@example.com