Sponsored by Wild Blueberries of North America.
When it comes to being a powerhouse ingredient in the kitchen, wild blueberries have the power to transform a restaurant menu from top to bottom.
Unlike their sweet cousin, the highbush blueberry, wild blueberries range in flavor from sweet to sour and lend themselves to a variety of different applications in the kitchen, pleasing customers with their wild nature, their flavor profile, and their unexpected suitability for everything from savory appetizer to sweet dessert.
"The wild blueberry has tremendous versatility as an ingredient, not only as the star of a dish, but also as a complimentary element in a dish," says Chef David Turin. "The highbush blueberry has very attractive fruit, but it is very sweet. In contrast, the wild blueberry has a delicate sweetness that doesn't overpower its flavor."
Highbush blueberries are the blueberry we're all familiar with—sweet, identical in shape and color, and bred to be the perfect blue hue we associate with blueberries. By propagating only a few select varieties, these cultivated blueberries have a distinct and narrow flavor profile popular in pancakes, muffins and scones, to name a few.
Lowbush wild blueberries on the other hand, are genetically diverse, consisting of hundreds of different naturally occurring varietal clones. It's this natural mix that has evolved over 10,000 years that gives wild blueberries a unique depth of flavor that can't be duplicated through the cultivation of a single variety. The subtle flavor differences from berry to berry is what makes Wild Blueberries such a special ingredient, Turin says. And for him, wild blueberries aren't just for pancakes and muffins; they can be used across the menu, in appetizers, entrees, soups, sauces, butters and, of course, desserts.
Turin, the owner and operator of several restaurants in Portland, Maine, was recently challenged to make a wild blueberry dinner for a number of prominent chefs. Each of the 14 dishes he presented at the dinner featured wild blueberries in some way, either as the star of the dish, or as an unexpected accompaniment. The results, he says, not only surprised the chefs in attendance, but also provided new dining experiences for his customers when he featured some of those dishes on his restaurant menu.
Of the 14 wild blueberry courses he served, only a few were sweet, such as a wild blueberry curd. But Turin also used the leftover pulps to create a savory wild blueberry caviar seasoned with salt and olive oil and a savory wild blueberry soup with a parsnip puree, crusted macadamia nuts, and a curry crème fraiche.
The berries can also be used as a flavor element in a variety of sauces, Turin says. For his wild blueberry dinner, he rolled a sirloin roast in pistachios and served it with a wild blueberry barbeque sauce. In another dish, he created a wild blueberry, plum and ginger gastrique to accompany duck breast.
Another taste aspect of the wild berries, he says, is their size. Because they are small, they pack a wallop when it comes to taste. The size also lends itself to quick freezing , which reduces the loss of flavor in the freezing process.
"I like to serve them on what we call our Super Food Salad," he says. "We use dark greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and then we top it with a handful of frozen wild blueberries. As the dish is being taken to the table, the berries are thawing. It's one of my best selling dishes."
The size also makes them a money saving ingredient providing more berries and more cups per pound than cultivated blueberries. And because the berries are frozen, kitchens can reduce waste while increasing profits. Their versatility means they can be used in a variety of dishes on each menu, giving chefs another way to get more berry for their buck.
Customers, he says, have loved the wild blueberry incarnations, which add a touch of authenticity to his farm-to-table real food fare and entice them to come back for more. "Putting wild blueberries in savory dishes and in sauces starts to break people's paradigms in the way they think about food," Turin says. "As diners become more sophisticated, they like more layers of flavor, and wild blueberries provide that no matter what they are in."
By Liz Carey