While it sometimes makes for political tension, one of the beautiful things about living on Long Island is that we have many of the conveniences of city living, including easy access to Manhattan, while still having some of the benefits of rural areas, like the availability of fresh, locally grown foods in season. Beginning with strawberries in early June and going through the summer months into the apples and pumpkins of mid-autumn, Long Island produces a veritable cornucopia of brilliant tastes, textures and colors just waiting to be served at your table.
Most Long Islanders also have the opportunity to have a little patch of this earth to call our own and plant with whatever warms our hearts, whether it be flowers, vegetables or fruit trees and berry bushes. Those hours we carve out from our busy schedules to lovingly tend the bounty that the earth has produced from the labor of our hands can be a moving meditation, a relaxing time of solitude and solidarity with mother earth, or in my case, an opportunity to contribute to my favorite charity, "Feed the Mosquitos."
Aside from the risk of contracting the West Nile virus, the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables that you have grown are many: you control whether or not you will use pesticides, no fuel resources are spent in transporting the food from its source to your table (no air pollution is produced in transport either), and the nutrient profile is more complete because there is less time for nutrients to break down in the time between picking and eating. For the most part, the same benefits apply to produce purchased at your local farmers market or from the grocers and produce markets that carry local produce in season. In addition, purchasing local produce supports the local economy.
Every time a farmer ceases to work the farm and sells the land to a developer, there is a huge public outcry reported in the media because a piece of Long Island's history and character will be lost forever. Yet, how can a small farm survive if people are unwilling to make a side trip to the farmers' market (or a day trip to the farm), or pay a higher price for locally grown produce? Long Islanders need to (literally) put their money where their mouths are by supporting local farms with their purchases, as well as their sentiments. To find a farmers' market near you,vist any one of the following websites: http://lifb.com/FINDAFARMSTAND/FindaFarmersMarket/tabid/69/Default.aspx, http://www.longislandgrowersmarket.com/ or http://www.longislandfresh.com/fmsuff.html.
By this time, you may be asking why I chose to call this post "Too Many Blackberries." Because that's my personal problem.
About five years ago, I was shopping in one of the big wholesale warehouse stores and for a mere $10, they had a berry kit, consisting of two blueberry bushes and one blackberry bush. I was immediately trasported back to the joy of childhood days spent picking wild blueberries in the woods near my grandparents' house in Shirley, so with a broad grin on my face, I placed the kit in my cart.
Before the sun set that day, all three bushes were planted along the back fence of my 60' x 100' property. As luck would have it, the advice on the label to have your soil pH tested before planting the blueberry bushes was very good advice. Unfortunately, I had ignored it, so within a very short time, not only had the two blueberry bushes failed to flourish, but there was no longer any sign of where I had planted them.
My consolation prize was a single solitary thriving blackberry bush. The first year, we got a few berries and the second, a few more. By the third summer, I could have had my own stand at the farmers' market. I can see it in my mind's eye - "Mary's Wantagh Blackberries - 100% organic - please take them off my hands." All kidding aside, that one bush now takes up about half of the 60' span of my back fence and produces roughly a quart of berries a day - for about four weeks straight!
There's something I neglected to mention...five years ago, when I bought the berry kit, I apparently had never eaten a blackberry. I thought I had, but what I had been eating were black raspberries that I had also picked in the woods. Let me make something clear. From all my mentions of picking berries in the woods, one might reach the conclusion that my parents had abandoned me in the woods as a child, but that is patently not true! Then, as now, I loved to be a food adventurer, so if it was edible and yummy and there for the taking, I took full advantage.
Which brings me back to too many blackberries...in the first summer following the planting of the berry kit, I discovered to my chagrin that I don't really love blackberries. If you pick them while they are still firm, they are very tart. If you wait until they are sweet and juicy, they burst under the pressure of your fingers and the juice (which is more red than black) drips all through your fingers making it look as though you had been busy tearing out someone's heart with your bare hands. And the stains under your fingernails last for days.
Nutritionists recommend selecting foods across all the colors of the rainbow for optimal nutrition. Blackberries, with their deep hues, are a great source of anthocyanins, believed to be potent antioxidants. That (and the flavor they develop when cooked or sweetened) makes it worth finding ways to use all those berries.
So far this summer, I have made several batches of blackberry jam and blackberry syrup, and frozen lots of berries for future use in smoothies and other recipes. I created a blackberry barbecue sauce that included lots of local organically grown goodness, along with a few shots of Glenlivet single malt scotch (in the sauce - not me) ... and there are still more berries!
I thought I'd share the recipe for my most recent blackberry creation with you, so perhaps when you see someone at the farmers' market struggling to earn an honest living (and get rid of some blackberries) you might be inspired to take some off their hands.
Blackberry Complexity Sauce
3 quarts blackberries (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
This sauce is complex in flavor, but simple to make. If berries are fresh, put them through a blender with the water to puree, then through a food mill to remove the large seeds. Place the resulting puree in a saucepan and add the remaining ingredients, mixing well. Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or till the sauce is thick enough to look like a sauce instead of drippy stuff that separates into lumps and purple water. This makes about 2 quarts of sauce. You can preserve some by either freezing it, or canning it in canning jars (10 minute boiling water bath for 8 oz. jars).
If the berries were frozen, you will either want to let them defrost before you get started or do the blend and food mill steps AFTER the cooking. You can omit the water with frozen berries. Because berries are a natural product, which may vary in sugar, water and seed content, all amounts are approximate.
The best way to get a taste you'll love is to taste and adjust. My sauce was still tart, but with enough sweetness to appreciate the taste of the berries with the cocoa and cinnamon coming through as aftertastes. I kept it on the tart side so it could be used as a sauce for desserts (ice cream, pound cake, Greek yogurt and lots of other yummy things) but it can also be used as the base for a mole sauce for savory dishes as well.
Earlier, I mentioned that the anthocyanins present in blackberries are believed to be potent antioxidants. They also might have the ability to boost the impression of intelligence. Once you've served this sauce to your family and friends, they'll think you're a genius.