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Blueberries are a perennial favorite

June 22, 2018

The more we learn about blueberries, the more reasons we discover to add them to the menu. One of the few fruits native to North America, wild blueberries were a staple of the Native American diet. Not only were blueberries considered sacred (the blossom end resembles a five-pointed star, taken as a sign they were sent by the Great Spirit during a time of famine) they were also used for dyes, cough syrup, teas and flavoring. 

Blueberries are a member of the Vaccinium family which also includes cranberries, azaleas and rhododendron. In various regions, blueberries have been called cowberry, bilberry, farkleberry, sparkleberry and (mistakenly) huckleberry. The plants leaf out in the spring and sport small, delicate flowers that develop into deep blue, plump, sweet berries. 

This perennial woody shrub comes in two types: low bush (original wild varieties) and high bush (a hybrid developed for commercial cultivation). The latter type was domesticated in the early twentieth century in Whitesbog, N.J., by Elizabeth White and USDA botanist Frederick Coville, who sold their first crop in 1916. 

In the following decades, blueberries became extremely popular, and are now found as an ingredient in nearly 4,000 products from sweet treats to pet food to cosmetics. They're growing in the White House garden and are a featured jellybean flavor. But, in addition to their addictive sweet-tart flavor, they're a nutritional powerhouse. 

One of the flavonoid compounds in blueberries is anthocyanin, which is the source of the beautiful blue color and its valuable antioxidant properties. The range of vitamins and minerals in blueberries include many responsible for bone health: iron, phosphorous, calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium and vitamin K. A single cup of fresh blueberries provides almost one-quarter of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. 

Several studies have shown blueberries help preserve cardiovascular health because they're high in fiber, cholesterol-free, rich in potassium, folate and vitamin B. They contribute to reducing inflammation and improving cognition and memory. During the American Civil War, soldiers were encouraged to drink a blueberry juice mixture to maintain their health. 

The season for blueberries runs from mid-June through mid-July, so this is the best time of year to find fresh, local berries. They grow best in acidic soils, which is why so many blueberry farms are located in the New Jersey pine barrens. Delaware growers who sell blueberries include Fifers, Magee Farms and Bennett Orchards - look for them at our local farmers markets throughout the county. 

Native Americans used dried blueberries mixed with meat to make pemmican (the original energy bar), added them to soups and stews for flavoring, and combined them with cornmeal and honey to make a sweet pudding. Modern recipes include instructions on adding fresh blueberries to smoothies, salads and sweets; freezing them; and transforming them into preserves. 

For the blueberry bars in the photo, we started with a shortcake crust, spread it with melted blueberry jam, added a thick layer of fresh blueberries and topped it with streusel. With clearly defined layers, it's different from a traditional blueberry cobbler or buckle and can be cut into small squares. I've included a recipe for a blueberry arugula salad with a lemony dressing. If you'd like you can add sliced chicken, grilled shrimp or cooked quinoa to change the texture and flavor while adding some lean protein. The chicken salad is delicious on a bed of baby lettuce or a buttery croissant. Here's to healthy berries!

Blueberry Bars 

3/4 C flour 
1/4 C confectioners sugar 
6 T butter 
pinch salt 
1/4 C blueberry jam 
2 C fresh blueberries 
1 T flour 
1 T sugar (optional) 
4 T butter 
1/2 C flour 
1/2 C packed brown sugar 

Preheat oven to 375 F. Coat the inside of an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour and confectioners sugar. Cut the butter into pieces and cut into the flour with a pastry blender until butter is the size of baby peas. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and spread evenly. Use the bottom of a glass to compact the dough tightly into a smooth layer. Bake for 10 minutes. Melt the jam in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally; set aside.

Remove crust from oven and spread with melted jam. In a mixing bowl, toss together the blueberries, flour and sugar (if using). Spread an even layer of berries over the jam. Combine remaining ingredients in a small mixing bowl and cut in butter with a pastry blender until crumbly. Sprinkle streusel over the berries. Bake until bubbling and golden, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Yield: 8 servings.

Arugula Blueberry Salad 

1 T honey 
3 T olive oil 
1 t white Balsamic vinegar 
juice of 1 lemon 
1 garlic clove 
salt & pepper, to taste 
5 oz baby arugula 
1 1/2 C fresh blueberries 
1/3 C slivered almonds 
3 oz goat cheese 

In a large serving bowl, whisk together honey, olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. Grate in garlic clove; season to taste with salt and pepper. Add arugula, blueberries and almonds; toss to coat with dressing. Break goat cheese into small pieces and scatter over the salad. Yield: 4 servings.

Blueberry Chicken Salad 

12 oz cooked chicken breast meat 
3/4 C mayonnaise 
1/4 C diced celery 
1 minced shallot 
2 T chopped walnuts 
1 C fresh blueberries 
salt & pepper, to taste 

Dice chicken and combine with mayonnaise, celery and shallot in a mixing bowl, stirring to combine thoroughly. Gently toss in walnuts and blueberries. Serve on croissants or a bed of spring greens. Yield: 2 C.