Chefs’ Picks: Berry Bonanza
Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.
Late spring means berry season can’t be far behind. While there’s no denying the pleasure of snacking on them freshly picked, these jewels of summer also make a fine addition to dishes both sweet and savory. Read on to find out how chefs are bringing it with berries this season.
With its quaint beach town vibe, Nantucket makes for idyllic summers that become even more perfect when the fields of strawberries at Bartlett’s Farm are ripe for picking. “I like working with strawberries in the summer not only because they are so versatile, but also because we have the option to pick them ourselves at the farm,” says Chef Patrick Ridge. When he’s not snacking on the ruby jewels fresh out of the flat, he uses them to make desserts like strawberry shortcake, served at his American restaurant Island Kitchen, and grab-and-go pints of strawberry ice cream and strawberry-frosted doughnuts at his adjacent shop, Tilbury & Skiff.
“It’s a fun experience being able to go out to the fields, gather your harvest and take them back to the restaurant to create doughnuts and ice cream,” he says. “The whole start-to-finish process is rewarding.”
Chef Matthew Basford of Atlanta also keeps it local when it comes to strawberries, even finding an unexpected use for the ones that are still around in late season. “These are the not-so-pretty berries but their flavor is exceptional. They are some of the sweetest of the season,” he says. That sweetness adds dimension to Basford’s housemade fermented hot sauce. The chef pulls in the berries to mellow out the heat from the sun-dried jalapenos, balance the bite of the apple cider vinegar and round out the funkiness from the hot sauce’s month-long fermentation. The resulting sauce is a surefire slam-dunk for Basford when he pairs it with another summer staple: grilled shrimp.
Basford has also developed a sweet spot for green strawberries. “The flavor is closer to a sweet pickle, just not as tart. The texture is soft, but firm; they have a slight bite,” he says. Though they’re a little too tart to enjoy raw, their slight strawberry flavor and firm texture make them perfect for pickling. They also deliver for dishes in need of a sour-crisp bite. At Canoe, a New American farm-to-table restaurant tucked along the Chattahoochee River, Basford slow-pickles the green strawberries in a cooler for four to six weeks, then uses them to punch up a summer special of halibut cheeks, yellow corn and feta cheese.
Bodacious Blueberries and Blackberries
In addition to being the chef and owner of Ray restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and writing award-winning cookbooks, Jenn Louis somehow finds time to tend a home garden in which she grows her own blueberries. “When my blueberry bushes start to bloom, I like to make sweet and savory jams like blueberry and basil-vanilla jam to top pancakes, crepes or toast in the morning,” she says. “I’ll make enough jars to give as gifts and have delicious homemade jam to last me into the fall.”
She also pickles the berries for stepped-up takes on toast, such as the version crowned with guanciale and pickled red onions that’s pictured above. One other use for the versatile fruit? Louis transforms the blueberries into a cobbler-like sauce by stewing them. Once ready, she tops the dish with steamed dumplings and a generous drizzle of warm cream.
Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Joe Flamm is also a fan of blueberries – and Mick Klug Farm in Michigan is his go-to source. “I always buy a flat of blueberries to use for the restaurant, but buy an extra flat for my cooks in the kitchen. We eat them raw, just stuffing our faces with big handfuls all day. It’s such a fun tradition to look forward to every summer,” he shares. At the beloved fine-dining Chicago restaurant, the berries show up across the sweet and savory sections of the menu, including a Sardinian-inspired venison dish paired with grilled blueberries.
Flamm also preserves the harvest by pickling them with thyme and white balsamic vinegar, and freezing them to make sorbets throughout the winter. He’s also a fan of Michigan blackberries, which lend a sweet, juicy burst to a summer-ready dish of kampachi crudo dressed with Calabrian peppers, olive oil and lemon juice.
Riper than Ripe Berries
California is blessed with a year-round berry crop, but as Chef Jill Davie points out, that doesn’t mean that it all gets sold or eaten. “Being a chef in my home city of Los Angeles for 20 years and working alongside the produce industry inspired me to start a company named CRANKED,” she says. “CRANKED purchases the ‘fugly’ fruit directly from our local farmers. The fruit is then washed, cut up and quickly frozen.”
At Davie’s restaurant The Mar Vista, a tableside cart outfitted with a food grinder uses the frozen fruit — including raspberries, blackberries and blueberries — to crank out customizable seasonal fruit bowls to order. You can finish your icy confection with toppings like local bee pollen, granola and edible flowers — or Nutella and chocolate chips, if you’re feeling less virtuous.
Photos courtesy of iStock/Anna Shepulova, Jenn Louis and iStock/Povareshka.