Pity the poor blueberry.
Often it gets lost in the mix, thrown in among brighter, showier berries, or overlooked simply because it seems to be around all the time. It’s not exactly the most outgoing of berries either, with its broodily dark color and subtle flavor.
But with a trick or two in the kitchen, you can coax this shy berry to shine and even sing. And if you keep an eye out for locally grown ones, you’ll hardly have to nudge them and you will wonder why you hadn’t been paying attention to them all along.
Once they’re picked, blueberries are as ripe as they’ll get. So local ones, which have a shorter distance to travel to market, are likelier to be more flavorful than those imported throughout the year from out of state or even out of the country. In Southern California, blueberries thrive in farms along the coast, thanks to a combination of microclimate and cultivation.
It’s a relatively long local season, starting as early as January and stretching into September, with varying degrees of abundance and flavor depending on the weather. A hot spell can cut short a good cycle. Perfect warm-and-cool conditions can mean a blueberry bonanza. We’re teetering somewhere in between those two now. So if you haven’t been out and about, grabbing them while you can at farmers markets, you’d better hurry.
Pastry chef Dorte Lambert wastes no time. “We go and taste at every stand and buy what’s best,” says Lambert, a consultant at Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica, where she was one of the original pastry chefs.
For her browned-butter tart, which has been on Michael’s menu since the restaurant’s early days in the 1980s, she likes blueberries that are crisp and tart.
The berries are scattered within the delicious browned-butter filling that forms a thin top crust as it bakes. “The butter has to be almost burned -- that creates that nutty flavor,” Lambert says. “If you don’t really bring it to the edge, you just have boring sweet butter.”
Nothing’s boring about this tart, from the crisp crust made with an egg yolk and a touch of cream, to its crowning glory: a heap of glistening blueberries that have been blanched in a simple syrup to bring out their best flavor.
Elizabeth Belkind, pastry chef at Grace, recently served a peach and caramelized apricot jam focaccia on a tasting menu. But the idea goes back to a blueberry-orange version she created for a housewarming brunch last year.
It starts with a dough that, unlike most focaccias, is enriched with butter and thus bakes softer. Then for the topping, Belkind also brings together browned butter and blueberries, but takes that toasted flavor to another level, adding a divine caramelized orange marmalade.
Alan Ashkinaze, chef at Aqua at St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, recently offered as an amuse a chilled watermelon soup with blueberries. You could also think of it as a fruity aperitif (it’s got a splash of Champagne and touch of orange liqueur), or serve it as a cocktail at a casual brunch (think mimosa) or a palate cleanser for a fancy dinner.
For Ashkinaze, it was a serendipitous soup. “We had a lot of watermelon and a lot of blueberries,” says the chef, who often buys produce from a roving farmer who delivers to his door. “And the blueberries were phenomenal. They were a touch overripe, so they went into a soup.”
You can make the soup base ahead and chill it till you’re ready to serve. When you pour it over, a couple of the blueberries might float to the top, but most will stay below, like little treasures waiting to be discovered.
Combine the sugar, water, white wine and lemongrass in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and gently simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep for at least 1 hour. Strain and set aside.
In a blender, combine the watermelon, peach, cantaloupe and half of the blueberries. Puree until smooth. Strain the mixture through a chinois or fine sieve (if you have a juicer, you can use it instead of a blender and skip this step because a juicer will strain the fruit.) Add the orange juice and some of the lemongrass simple syrup to taste, about 1 to 2 tablespoons. Chill the mixture.
Just before serving, cut the remaining blueberries in half and place in a small bowl. Add the mint, ground cayenne pepper, a pinch of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of Cointreau. Stir gently and divide among 8 demitasse cups.
To the watermelon mixture, stir in 1 1/4 teaspoons Cointreau, the Champagne and club soda. Divide the mixture among the cups, pouring over the blueberries. Serve immediately.
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