Food & Drink » Food & Wine

Pickin' Time

Do you know what can happen with five pounds of blueberries?



I do. Last weekend, I picked, sorted, and washed half a bucket of berries. I ate quite a few too, sampling off the bushes and dipping into my stash back home, where I spent the July 4th weekend in a cooking and baking frenzy.

A pick-your-own newbie, I decided on Harris Farms in Millington because it is close — less than 30 minutes from East Memphis — and the blueberries are organic. The farm is easy to find, hugging a country road about 10 miles up Austin Peay Highway.

Once there, the process is simple: Take a bucket, walk up the rise past the rosemary and compost, and start picking.

The bushes are loaded, and at first, I'm a little greedy. If it's a berry and it's blue, it goes in the bucket. But after a while, I start to notice the plumpest berries at the top of the bush or the end of each cluster.

These are the mother lode, and soon I'm mesmerized by the picking and the birds and the midday quiet: pick, plunk, pick, plunk, taste. Even the 90-degree heat isn't bad because the bushes, planted three decades ago, are tall enough to make a little shade. But beware: Poison ivy and blueberry bushes like to hang out together.

After an hour and a half, I snap out of my trance and head for the Harris' roadside stand. Alvin Harris is happy to take me to school on his favorite fruit.

In the Mid-South, rabbiteye blueberries are the best match for the climate. "There are many types of rabbiteye, but Tifblue is the best," Harris says. "They are the most productive and bear fruit for the longest time."

I'm curious about how a farmer picks blueberries, so I ask for advice.

"The ripest berries have an opaque color to them, and when you pick them, they roll into your hand," Harris says. "If they are real shiny, they're not ready to eat."

Berries for cooking, however, don't play by the same rules. "As long as they aren't green, the color doesn't matter," Harris says. "I have one man who picks half red berries because they are tart. He likes them for pies."

By now, Harris' wife, Shirley, joins the conversation. I ask about making jam (she follows the Sure Jell directions) and blueberry syrup.

"Two cups berries, one cup water, no pectin," she says. "Then cook it down with about half a cup of sugar."

On the way home, I think about all the wonderful things I can make: jam (a must-do); blueberry pancakes (Alvin's favorite); syrup (if I can figure out the "cook it down" part); and bundt cake (lemon with blueberry sounds nice). But first I have to clean and sort almost 14 cups of berries. (Tip: Store clean berries in the square plastic containers from salad mix.)

The next morning, I make pancakes from scratch (yum!) and cook down blueberries for syrup like this: Combine the water, blueberries (smash them a little with an avocado or potato masher), and sugar, let it come to a full rolling boil for a minute or two, turn it down to a low boil for about 10 minutes and then a simmer for a few minutes more.

Next, I turn my attention to jam.

Shirley was right. Use the Sure Jell recipe and don't skimp on the sugar. Also, don't worry about fancy canning equipment.

I throw the lids in a sauce pan, put the jars in a large stainless-steel pot, cover both with water, boil for a minute, then turn off the heat. The jars stay hot while the jam cooks.

Did I make it to the bundt cake? Yes, but not until Sunday morning. And guess what? I still have two cups of blueberries in my freezer for nutritious and delicious snacks.

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