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Autumn berries: Blackberries, chokeberries and elderberries

Mixed berry cobbler (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

We usually equate berries with summer. And yes — strawberries come in June, blueberries in July, raspberries in August.

But it’s September. Labor Day is past and school has begun. It’s time for blackberries, chokeberries and elderberries.

Blackberries

Blackberries are the best-known dark-colored berries and are also a favorite of deer. Although small and knobby, they offer a burst of sweet flavor and goodness.

The biennial stems (called canes) come up from a perennial root system; berries appear on the stems the second year. Botanically, the fruit is not a true berry, but rather a collection of many drupelets that ripen to a dark purple or black fruit.They have large thorns; because of their prickliness, they’re known as briars or brambles.

Blackbrries grow wild throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. There are many varieties, some native to the Old World, others to the New. In ancient times, they were collected and consumed by hunters and gatherers. Forensic studies from the Iron Age show that the Haraldskaer Woman (500 BC, Denmark) had feasted on these berries.

Elderberries

Many species of elders (Sambucus genus) grow wild in temperate regions of all continents except Africa. The most common in our region is sambucus Canadensis, which grows throughout eastern North America as far north as zone 3 and 4 along trails, woodland roads and at the margins of fields.

These attractive, easy-to-grow shrubs have creamy white, fragrant, edible flowers in late June and dark clusters of berries in September, and were once a common backyard fruit at farm stands and farmers’ markets. They attract lots of wildlife. Butterflies love the flower nectar and the berries are a favorite of many birds. Because the tiny, fragile berries do not store or transport well, they have become a rarity in the age of supermarket produce, where berries from California and South America are available year-round.

To harvest, pick the large clusters, bring them home and remove the berries from the stems with your fingers or with the help of a fork. The small, tart berries can be eaten raw or added to salads, but are best in wine, vinegar, jams, syrups, pies and other baked goods.

Aronia or Chokeberry

Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans used and valued the chokeberry, which grows wild in damp woods and swamps. The tall bushes bear dark fruit larger than a blueberry and smaller than a cherry. This native to the eastern United States is healthy, sustainable, versatile, locally grown and flavorful.

In the 1800s, cultivars were imported to Europe, where they grew in popularity and acquired the Latin name, aronia. In many countries, aronia juice is as common as apple juice is in the United States.

Although aronia berries have a sugar content equal to table grapes, they also have an astringent quality to their flavor that many find objectionable. Winemakers have used this dry astringency, combining the chokeberry with grapes for a dry wine. In addition to wine, they can be made into juice (good in combination with apple cider), syrups, jellies, jams, tea and tinctures. They’re good stirred into a salsa, cooked with apples into chutney or baked with apples or other berries in a pie or cobbler. Freezing them tames the astringency a bit, and anything with protein helps to chemically subdue the tannic taste.

Superfoods

Berries are tiny powerhouses of nutrition that have been touted as “superfoods.” They’re low in calories, high in fiber, and high in vitamins, especially vitamin C. Dark colored berries like the blackberry, elderberry, aronia (chokeberry) and black currant have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all fruits, and up to 50% more flavonoids than other berries. They also contain anthocyanins, pterostilbene, ellagic acid, and polyphenols. Exactly how these substances work is still unknown, but these powerful compounds work together to fight off oxidative stress and free radicals in the body. They have been shown to regulate metabolism, boost “good” cholesterol, protect against cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline due to aging, and vision loss.

Of course, each berry has a unique nutritional profile. Just one cup of blackberries has half the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, as well as 10% of the folate and 22% of the fiber. They are also a good source of potassium, calcium and iron, and malic and citric acids.

Elderberries have been used in folk medicine since the time of Hippocrates. Sambucus cough syrup is still a common remedy for colds and bronchitis. They’re higher in vitamin C than oranges or tomatoes, contain vitamins A and B, thiamine, niacin and calcium. They have more potassium and phosphorus than any temperate fruit. Modern research has confirmed the power of elderberries to fight viruses, including flu, AIDS, herpes and Epstein-Barr.

Aronia has the most antioxidants, with 1,480 miligrams of anthocyanin concentration per 100 grams of fresh berries. According to the USDA, aronia berries have four times the antioxidant power of blueberries, goji berries, strawberries or pomegranates. The astringent qualities are due to their high concentration of polyphenols.

To get the maximum health benefits, eat your berries raw rather than cooked into jam or pie. Berries are like summer in a small package, so grab a handful and enjoy before the leaves turn and fresh berries are gone for the season.

Quinoa Berry Salad

Ingredients:

Dressing:

2 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons Olive oil

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

Salad:

1 cup Quinoa, rinsed

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups mixed berries (1 cup blackberries, 1/2 cup aronia, 1/2 cup elderberries)

2 cups chopped fresh greens like spinach or arugula

1 cucumber, chopped fine

1/2 – 1 cup chopped walnuts

Directions:

In saucepan, combine quinoa, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, and cook until liquid is absorbed, 12 – 15 minutes.

While quinoa cooks, crush garlic with remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. In small bowl combine garlic, salt, vinegar, oil, and maple syrup. Whisk to combine.

Transfer cooked quinoa to salad bowl and stir in the dressing. Add the berries, greens, cucumber and nuts. Garnish with additional nuts, if desired.

Serves 3 – 4.

Mixed Berry Cobbler

Ingredients:

2 – 3 cups mixed berries

4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1/2 cup milk

1 Tablespoon sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt butter in small saucepan. Add milk and sugar.

In bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Add milk-butter-sugar mixture from saucepan; stir to make a soft dough.

Butter a 9” x 9″ baking dish (or spray with cooking spray.) Arrange berries in bottom of dish. Spoon the dough over the fruit.

Bake about 1/2 hour at 350°F or until topping is golden brown.

Serves 6 – 9.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.