They say you have to make hay while the sun shines -- well, the same goes for picking berries.
The berry season is brief but sweet in Manitoba, so you won't want to waste any time if picking is your thing. Get out there as soon as you can and get as much as you can.
Here's the 411 on how to do just that.
The Prairie Fruit Growers Association is a voluntary non-profit organization that represents all Manitoba fruit crop growers. They help to promote local growers so they can keep growing both berries and business.
When you visit these folks online at www.pfga.com, in addition to recipes, you'll find information on all the member farms. Just click on the type of berry you want to pick and all the local growers will pop up. Each grower listed will have their contact information (always phone before you go) as well as printable directions to the farms. Some farms are open as late as 9 p.m., so you can plan an evening of picking after work, but again, always call to confirm hours of operation.
Some farms will also let you order "pre-pick" if you don't have time to pick for yourself.
If you're not into picking them yourself, you can find berries at local farmers' markets as well. Go to http://wfp.to/Z15 or google Manitoba's Local Produce Guide 2013, and find a list of Manitoba farmers' markets with maps.
If you are picking, remember to dress for the weather, including wearing sunscreen, hats and bug spray. Carry water with you, especially if you have young children tagging along. Be sure to bring a cooler with some freezer packs to keep your berries cool for the drive home.
All berries are very perishable and should be consumed or preserved within two to three days.
Once picked, they need to be sorted to remove damaged berries and kept cool in the refrigerator.
Always pack them loosely and cover them lightly.
Do not wash berries until you are ready to serve, cook or preserve them, or store them in the freezer.
Once you are ready to use them, rinse well first and then stem the berries (remove the white core from strawberries) and drain them. Always leave the stems in strawberries until after you rinse them to prevent loss of juice.
Whole berries will hold on to their nutrients better than cut or sliced berries.
Clean, stem and dry your berries and spread them out on a cookie sheet.
Place them in the freezer and once frozen, transfer them to a container and place them back in the freezer.
Once packaged, label contents, the date they were frozen and a "use by" date (four to six months at the most).
I like to wash and reuse empty dairy cartons (500 ml and 1 litre size) for freezing foods. They hold a measured amount, can be taped shut and easily labelled and they stack neatly in the freezer, taking up less space than round containers.
Since fresh local berries have such a short season, I prefer recipes that make the most of them just as they are. Here are some to try.
Berry Crepes (sort of)
This is a lovely course to serve at brunch or as a dessert.
Toss together any combination of fresh berries to make 300 ml (1 1/3 cups)
Blend together the following until smooth:
80 ml (1/3 cup) cottage cheese
22 ml (1 1/2 tbsp) milk
10 ml (2 tsp) granulated sugar
5 ml (1 tsp) lemon juice
Bit of grated lemon rind (optional)
Warm a small (6-inch) flour tortilla slightly in a frying pan. Place on a plate and spoon some fresh berries on one half. Spread a generous tablespoon of cottage cheese mixture over berries. Fold tortilla in half. Repeat until all the fillings are used up (about 6 to 8 tortillas).
Top with a dollop of sour cream sweetened with just a touch of sugar or top with whipping cream.
Greens and Strawberries
2 l (about 8 cups) salad greens or baby spinach
500 ml (2 cups) sliced strawberries
60 to 80 ml (1/4 to 1/3 cup) chopped fresh mint (optional)
60 to 80 ml (1/4 to 1/3 cup) slivered almonds or hulled sunflowers seeds
125 to 175 ml (1/2 to 3/4 loosely measured cup) crumbled feta
Your favourite vinaigrette-type dressing
Just prior to serving, toss all the salad ingredients together. You can leave out the cheese and serve it separately in a small serving bowl to allow guests to add to their taste.
Toss in salad dressing. Serve. (Light, fruity vinaigrettes will work best. You can grate a little orange rind over top as well.)
Basic Raspberry Vinegar
Berries and vinegar combined in a ratio of one to one make a flavourful addition to your salad ingredients.
500 ml (2 cups) fresh, rinsed and stemmed raspberries
500 ml (2 cups) distilled white vinegar
Thoroughly blend berries and vinegar in the blender. Pour into a clean glass jar (one quart should do it). Allow to stand for six or seven days in a cool, dark place. Shake the jar once or twice every day to blend flavours.
Strain the vinegar through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove all solids. Pour vinegar into a glass bottle suitable for pouring. Keep in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
Strawberry Rhubarb Jam With a Twist
I transplanted the rhubarb in my garden and had to make a quick batch of freezer jam. I measured out all the rhubarb and found I didn't have quite enough fruit. I decided to top it up with about 1 1/2 cups of fresh strawberries, and instead of strawberry-flavoured gelatin, I used wild cherry. The flavour was fabulous! The cherry flavour actually brought out the strawberries really well against the rhubarb, and it's been really nice to have bits of real strawberry in with the rhubarb.
You can find freezer jam recipes all over the Internet and there is generally room to alter them a little, so check them out for ideas that you might like to try. The basic formula is:
1.25 l (5 cups) chopped rhubarb (I used about 375 ml or 1 1/2 cups of berries and 875 ml or 3 1/2 cups of rhubarb)
60 ml (1/4 cup) water
550 to 750 ml (2 1/4 to 3 cups) sugar
1 small package strawberry-flavoured gelatin (I used wild cherry)
On medium-low heat, bring water and fruit to boiling and mash well. Add sugar and bring to boil again. Remove from heat and add gelatin. Divide into 4 or 5 containers and freeze. Makes about one litre (4 cups) jam. I transfer the thawed jam from a plastic container to a pretty glass jar when I'm ready to use it. You can grate in a little lemon or orange zest as a finishing touch.