In the six wild blueberry seasons that I have lived in Maine, the news has been gloomy for the state’s iconic crop. A quick rundown of stories the Press Herald has published in that interval is, mostly, a catalog of woe.

Here is a glimpse into its pages: The wild, or lowbush, berries are overproduced and undervalued. Demand is down. Prices have plummeted. Growers have left the berries to rot in the fields because it costs more to harvest them than they are worth. The industry is troubled, and the farmers are struggling. Not only that, the farmers are aging out of their fields. Cultivated blueberries have stolen the show. Large producers have stolen the show. Canada has stolen the show (last summer, when I mentioned that to my Canadian cousin Ricky, he retorted “fake news!). Most recently, Trump’s trade war with China has led to tariffs on the berries, and doomed a potential new market.

So this year, as a patriotic if still relatively recent Mainer, I intend to do my bit. I plan to think globally and act locally, to take action into my own hands. My proposal is a simple one: Raise demand for wild Maine blueberries by cooking with them more.

Help save Maine’s wild blueberry barrens. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If you think my effort is quixotic, ask yourself how kiwis rose to stardom in the 1970s, pomegranates became the queen of fruits circa 2007, and whence the kale craze of 2011? Like everything else, food goes through cycles – and popularity drives consumption.

True, it’s January. Nonetheless the timing feels right. The majority of Maine’s wild blueberry crop is frozen, as when fresh, the bitty berries are too fragile to travel. From that perspective, January is as pertinent as July.

Add to that, tis the season of healthy eating resolutions, and the berries are touted as the No. 1 antioxidant fruit, with “2x the antioxidant power of ordinary blueberries, offering more of what it takes to combat disease and promote healthy aging,” according to wildblueberries.com, the website for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. The organization also says the berry may prevent cancer; improve brain, gut and heart health, as well as urinary tract function; and reduce the risk of diabetes. Wowzers!

Finally, in the state’s bicentennial year, it’s apt to celebrate a berry with a long and storied history in Maine. It established itself here after the last Ice Age; was eaten, and maintained, by Native Americans; and shipped in cans to Union soldiers during the Civil War when, according to a New England Historical Society story titled “How the Civil War Made the Wild Maine Blueberry Go National.” “The soldiers developed a taste for the sweet wild berry and took it home with them after the war.”

Short of another civil war – and granted, that does seem possible given our raging political divide – I lack the power to revive Maine’s wild blueberry industry single-handedly. I need your help. But this is an easy ask. Maine cooks and eaters, I’m not suggesting you lunch on liver, cook with crickets, ingest eggplant or any number of other oft-loathed (or, more accurately, misunderstood) foods. Simply build on your eat-local resolutions. Simply resolve to eat more wild blueberries in 2020.

You don’t need me to tell you about the obvious uses. Make pie. Add the berries to smoothies, pancakes or muffins. Bake legendary Maine food columnist Marjorie Standish’s legendary blueberry cake. Or start with these three recipes.

Together, let’s make this the breakout year for Maine’s wild blueberry crop.

Blueberry-Glazed Seared Duck Michele McDonald

Blueberry-Glazed Seared Duck over Sweet Potato Puree

This recipe is inspired by one I found in “Fresh from Maine: Recipes and Stories from the State’s Best Chefs” by Michael S. Sanders, and is credited to Havana, a restaurant in Bar Harbor.

Serves 4-5

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 jalapeno, seeded and diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1-2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons minced chipotle in adobo, or to taste

1 1/2 cups wild Maine blueberries, fresh or frozen

1 tablespoon maple syrup

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Salt and pepper

3 large sweet potatoes

3/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/2 tablespoon butter

Juice of 1/2 lime, or more to taste

Scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

4 (6-ounce) duck breasts

Heat the oil in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the onions, jalapeno and cumin and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent but not browned, about 15 minutes. If necessary, dribble in a little water to keep the onions from browning.

Stir in the garlic and chipotle and saute for another minute or two. Add the blueberries, maple syrup and cider vinegar and cook over medium-high heat until the blueberries release their liquid. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 10-15 minutes until the sauce is syrupy and the flavors have melded. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The blueberry sauce can be made ahead and reheated gently when you are ready to make the duck.

Peel and cube the sweet potatoes, then boil in plenty of salted water until soft. Drain. Puree the sweet potatoes in a mixer or food processor with the sour cream, butter, lime juice, cayenne and salt to taste. The sweet potatoes can also be made ahead and reheated in the oven or microwave when you are ready to make the duck.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, crosshatch the skin side of each duck breast with a sharp knife, taking care not to slice down to the flesh. Salt and pepper the breasts well. Consider unplugging your smoke alarm briefly, as this can be a smoky task. Sear the breasts in the hot pan, skin side down, until browned, about 10 minutes, draining the grease two or three times as necessary. Flip the breasts and brush liberally with the blueberry sauce.

Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the duck breasts register 135 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer, roughly eight minutes. Check before then, as duck breasts can easily overcook. Remove from the oven and let the meat rest for 10 minutes before slicing into 1/2-inch medallions against the grain. The meat should be pink.

Place a generous dollop of sweet potato puree onto 4-5 serving plates, fan duck breast slices across the puree, then glaze with additional blueberry sauce. If you’ve extra sauce, pass it at the table.

Blueberry Gingerbread deserves a revival. Jill Brady/staff photographer Buy this Photo

Blueberry Gingerbread

Recipe comes from “The Harvest Baker” by former New Hampshire resident Ken Haedrich, who writes “Blueberries and molasses have deep roots in New England, so I consider this to be a quintessential Yankee dessert.” I’ve seen the same combination of blueberry and gingerbread in several older New England cookbooks, including the classic “Good Maine Food” by Marjorie Mosser, but I rarely see it in a new cookbook and have never run into the cake in a contemporary Maine bakery or cafe. Let’s revive it in 2020.

Yields 9 to 12 servings

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 cup molasses

1/4 cup pure maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot water

1 1/4 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9 by 9-inch cake pan.

Combine the butter, brown sugar and egg in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer (handheld works fine), beat the mixture on medium-high speed for one to two minutes, until smooth and creamy. Add the molasses, maple syrup, and vanilla. Beat again until smooth.

Combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves in another bowl. Whisk well to mix. Stir the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture in two stages, adding a little of the hot water if the batter starts to be too thick. Gradually add the rest of the hot water in several stages, stirring with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the blueberries and fold them in until the batter is evenly mixed. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth with a spoon.

Bake the gingerbread for about 50 minutes, until it is well-risen and a tester inserted into the enter of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a rack and cool the cake for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Pour the batter over the berries and melted butter to make this classic Blueberry Cobbler. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Blueberry Cobbler

Recipe comes from Kathy Gunst’s “Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes.” Admitted, chances are you already have this recipe, or a similar one. But a good blueberry cobbler is the essence of perfect simplicity. I can never resist the dessert, and I couldn’t resist the recipe, either.

Serves 4 to 6

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2/3 cup milk

2 cups berries

Yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream, to serve

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In an 8-inch gratin, shallow casserole, ovenproof skillet or pie plate, melt the butter in the oven as it comes to temperature. Remove butter when melted.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Add the milk and whisk the batter lightly.

Place the berries on top of the melted butter and pour the batter on top of the fruit. Place on the middle shelf of your oven and bake 35 to 45 minutes, or until the batter is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm or at room temperature with the yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream.


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