June 15, 2012, 5:49 p.m. ET
Pick Berries for Dinner
Don't overlook the ability of these tiny fruits to play nicely with meat, fish and veggies
The use of fruit in main dishes goes way back—even further than the '80s.
This time of year, berries abound, and you can only bake so many pies. Luckily the diminutive fruits pack enough pluck and flavor to lend complexity to a main course. If the idea of using berries in savory dishes gives you flashbacks to 1980s-style raspberry vinaigrette, buck up. The recipes offered here, like blackberry pork ribs and halibut with raspberry relish, feature assertive meats and big spicy, salty and tart flavors.
The use of fruit in main dishes goes way back—even further than the '80s. Paul Freedman, professor of history at Yale University and author of "Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination," said that the use of fruit, sugar and sweet spices in main dishes was fashionable in Europe during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, when concoctions like sour cherry pie with cheese and eggs as well as chicken with pomegranate weren't uncommon. The 18th century saw the rise of a new culinary style that separated the sweet from the savory. The focus of sauces shifted to intensifying the flavor of the meat with onions and broth reductions, rather than layering it with fruits and spices. "The spicy and sweet flavorings were replaced by a greater attention to the ingredients, and a preference for herbs over spices," Mr. Freedman said.
Berry Season 101
You can get good-quality berries in most markets now through the end of summer—and raspberries and blackberries last into the fall. But each berry has a slightly different peak season: Strawberries and blueberries are approaching their peaks right now, while blackberries and raspberries are at their very best later in the summer, around August.
Yet for those of us who love sweet and savory combinations, berries are a natural way to achieve that sweet-salty twinning. No one knows this better than food writer Janie Hibler, author of "The Berry Bible." As an Oregonian, she lives in one of the country's major berry-growing regions. She says that the key to cooking with berries is understanding how a particular berry's sweetness and acidity will balance with the other ingredients in a dish. "I was very skeptical of fish with berries," she said. "But you just need to recognize which berries have higher acidity. Acidic berries like gooseberries go best with fatty fish like mackerel. Halibut is not as fatty, so sweeter berries like strawberries or raspberries work really well."
Ms. Hibler notes you should always taste your berries before starting to cook with them. If they're super-sweet, just add a little extra lemon juice or vinegar to the dish. Remember, the recipes here are just the beginning—play around with the idea all you want. Nobody's saying you can't have berries for dessert, too.
Sticky Blackberry Barbecued Pork Ribs
The smallest and most tender pork rib, baby back ribs cook relatively quickly. This jammy, sweet glaze tastes best when you season the finished ribs generously with salt.
Hands-On Time: 1 hour 15 minutes Total Time: 3½ hours
2 racks baby back pork ribs (about 2-2½ pounds each)
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon hot smoked paprika
1¼ cups honey
¾ pound (about 2½ cups) blackberries
½ cup blackberry preserves
¼ cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons bourbon (or whiskey)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons red-pepper flakes
What To Do
1. Flip one rib rack over and insert the tip of a butter knife under tough membrane that covers back of rack. Wiggle knife to loosen membrane. Grab membrane with a paper towel and pull it off. Repeat with remaining rack.
2. At least 1 hour before cooking, mix 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon pepper and smoked paprika in a small bowl. Season ribs very generously on all sides with spice mixture. Let ribs come to room temperature, about 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, set up a grill to cook with indirect heat: For a charcoal grill, light charcoal using a chimney starter. When coals have started to ash over on top, pour them all onto one side of lower grate. This creates a hot zone and a cooler zone. If using a gas grill, light burners on one side of grill, leaving others off to create a hot zone and a cooler zone. Or preheat an oven to 350 degrees to cook ribs indoors.
4. Place ribs meaty-side up on cooler side of the grill and close lid. (Make sure vents are partly open.) Or put ribs in a roasting pan and place in oven. Cook ribs 1 hour. If using a charcoal grill, light more charcoal briquettes in chimney starter and pour on top of coals to replenish the fire. Flip ribs meaty-side down. Cook until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
5. Meanwhile, make blackberry glaze: In a blender, purée honey, blackberries, preserves, maple syrup, bourbon, vinegar, red-pepper flakes and remaining salt and pepper. Scrape into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until reduced and syrupy.
6. Flip ribs meaty-side up, brush generously with glaze and close the lid. Cook 1 minute. Brush meaty side with glaze again. Move ribs to hot side of grill and flip over. Brush underside of racks with glaze. Close lid. Cook 1 minute or until glazed and caramelized on both sides. If cooking inside, brush ribs with glaze and place under broiler until glazed and caramelized, 1-2 minutes. Season generously with salt and let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Strawberry Soup With Mint and Crème Fraîche
Chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Va. shared this recipe.
"This soup changes from bite to bite. It goes from sweet to savory and back," he said. Strawberries are the main ingredient, so use the best ones you can find.
Hands-On Time: 20 minutes Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes Serves: 4 to 6 as an appetizer
1½ pounds (about 5 cups) strawberries, hulled
¼ cup good-quality white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup lightly packed mint leaves, cut into chiffonade
Crème fraîche, for garnish
What To Do
1. Combine strawberries, vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl. Refrigerate and let macerate 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so.
2. Purée strawberries, vinegar, sugar and salt in a blender. Strain if desired for a seedless soup, but it isn't necessary.
3. Serve garnished with mint and a dollop of crème fraîche.
Curried Halibut With Raspberry-Papaya Relish
This recipe is adapted from "The Berry Bible" by Janie Hibler (William Morrow Cookbooks). The original calls for strawberries in the relish, but we love the way super-juicy, sweet-tart raspberries balance the curry's spiciness.
Total Time: 35 minutes Serves: 4
1 cup chopped fresh raspberries
1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped papaya
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
Kosher salt, to taste
1½ pounds fresh halibut, skin trimmed, cut into 4 pieces
Curry powder, for seasoning
2-3 teaspoons canola oil
1 (13½-ounce) can reduced-fat coconut milk
6 cups cooked basmati rice
What To Do
1. Put an oven-safe skillet in oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees.
2. Toss raspberries, papaya, cilantro, onion, lime juice and olive oil together. Season with salt and set aside. Meanwhile, bring fish to room temperature.
3. Generously season fish with curry powder and salt. Heat canola oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Sear fish on both sides until golden brown, about 45 seconds per side. Transfer fish to hot skillet in the oven and roast until fish is barely cooked through, about 6 more minutes. Flesh will feel firm and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of each piece should read 135 degrees. Fish will continue to cook when it comes out of the oven. Transfer to a warm platter and cover.
4. Pour coconut milk into hot skillet over medium-low heat. Gently scrape bottom of the pan to release caramelized bits as milk heats. Season milk with a generous pinch of salt.
5. Divide rice among 4 bowls. Lay fish on top and ladle coconut milk over all. Put relish on top of fish and sprinkle more cilantro leaves over all.
Duck and Cherry Skewers With Chipotle-Cherry Sauce
While technically not berries, cherries have a bite-size sweetness and seasonality that makes them berries' spiritual cousins. Cherries and duck are a classic combo for good reason—the cherries provide a sweet and tangy counterpoint to the meat's richness.
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes Serves: 4
1½ cups tart cherry juice
2½ pounds duck breasts
1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup molasses
3 chipotle chilis in adobo, chopped
What To Do
1. Pour cherry juice into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until syrupy and reduced by half, about 35 minutes. If using wooden skewers, submerge 8-10 wooden skewers in water for about 30 minutes. This will keep them from burning over heat.
2. Meanwhile, trim excess skin and fat from duck. Score duck skin in a diagonal crosshatch pattern, cutting through skin and fat but not meat. This will help skin get crisp on the grill. Cut breasts into bite-size pieces.
3. Assemble skewers: Thread duck pieces and cherries onto skewers, alternating. Try to make sure that skin sides of all duck pieces face the same way on each skewer. Repeat until all duck is skewered. Season meat and fruit generously with salt and pepper.
4. Add remaining cherries, maple syrup, molasses and chilis to simmering cherry juice. Continue to simmer, stirring, 5 minutes. Pour into a blender and purée. (Be careful: Hot liquids can expand when blended. Vent lid to let steam escape.) Pour sauce into a bowl.
5. Set up a grill to cook with indirect heat: For a charcoal grill, light charcoal using a chimney starter. When coals have started to ash over on top, pour them all onto one side of lower grate. This creates a hot zone and a cooler zone. If using a gas grill, light the burners on one side of the grill, leaving the other burners off to create a hot zone and a cooler zone. Or, if cooking the skewers indoors, heat a grill pan over medium heat.
6. Grill skewers skin-side down on the cooler side of the grill with lid closed, about 10 minutes, or until the skin has shrunk and started to get crisp and golden. (Check after 5 minutes and move any skewers that are not rendering their fat closer to the heat.) Duck fat can cause flare-ups. If flare-ups occur, simply move skewers toward cooler side of grate, away from fire. Move all skewers to the hot side of the grate, skin-side up. Close lid and grill 5 minutes. Brush skewers all over with sauce, close lid again and cook 1 minute. Flip skewers, brush with sauce again and cook 1 more minute, or until glazed on all sides. If you're cooking skewers inside on grill pan, cook skin-side down over medium heat until skin is crisp, about 10 minutes. Flip and cook 5 minutes more. Brush with sauce on both sides and cook, turning once or twice, until glazed. Serve remaining sauce on the side.
Blueberry and Cucumber Salad With Feta
This salad's refreshing crunch is perfect in hot weather. Blueberries can be milder and less acidic than other berries, so they mellow the salty feta and sharp-tasting mint.
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
3 heaping cups blueberries
2 hothouse cucumbers, peeled and seeds scraped out, cut into 1-inch pieces on a diagonal
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup crumbled feta
1 heart of romaine, chopped
2 lightly packed cups mint leaves
What To Do
In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, honey and salt and pepper. Combine blueberries, cucumbers, scallions, feta, romaine and mint in a large serving bowl. Toss with dressing. Add more salt and pepper, to taste.
A version of this article appeared June 16, 2012, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Pick Berries for Dinner.
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