Sponsored by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Blueberries are one of nature’s perfect snacks—neatly-packaged, nutritious, and highly versatile. To highlight the berry’s year-round appeal, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council recently held a recipe contest challenging Chicago-based chefs to explore its versatility. Entries ranged from homestyle favorites, like the winning recipe for a Blueberry-Jalapeño Pulled Pork Sandwich to modern takes on Chicken Liver Mousse. Here’s the finale of our three-part series highlighting the winning recipes.
Runner-up honors went to Chef Gide Merriman of Chicago’s The French Lunchbox for his house-made blueberry pancake gnocchi. While the breakfast twist on a traditional pasta entrée was unique enough, Merriman went a step further and topped the gnocchi with sweet potato tots, bacon lardons, and a fried egg served with maple syrup gastrique and Cap’n Crunch garnish. Merriman got his big break in Napa Valley, where he worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry’s sister restaurant, Bouchon, before opening The French Lunchbox as his first restaurant venture. Excited about his new creation, Merriman shared the blueberry-inspired dish with diners as a new menu addition for March and April—the dish quickly became a successful LTO. We spoke with Merriman to learn more about this sophisticated, yet fun and approachable dish that riffs on several breakfast favorites at once.
1. While blueberries are no stranger to breakfast, you have created such a unique compilation of breakfast favorites in new pairings and applications. What inspired your winning creation?
My idea was a play on the classic breakfast favorite: blueberry pancakes. The dish is over the top—you have sweet, tart, savory, and salty all together in one bite. The gnocchi that I’m famous for is made with pâte à choux dough, which is typically used to make crullers, beignets, and other decadent French pastries. The blueberries bring a nice tartness, while the fried egg is served sunny-side up, so the yolk blends into a savory sauce with the bacon lardons. The maple syrup gastrique is served on the side for diners looking to control how sweet the dish is. And lastly, the Cap’n Crunch garnish is added as a textural element, and never fails to make people smile.
2. How did you infuse the gnocchi with the classic blueberry pancake flavor?
Once you finish making the dough, simply fold in the blueberries. The blueberries release a little juice into the gnocchi, so you get a beautiful blue and purple marbling.
3. What form of blueberries worked best for incorporating into the gnocchi dough?
For the gnocchi dough, I was looking for that perfect tart and sweetness ratio that blueberries are known for. I found this ideal flavor ratio using fresh blueberries.
4. Since the recipe has been featured as an LTO at The French Lunchbox, how have your customers responded to the unique recipe?
From diners who ordered it, we received positive reviews. We were surprised to sell a lot in the morning as many diners craved it for breakfast. Overall, it was a successful LTO, one that I would absolutely bring back.
5. With your specialty in French gourmet comfort food, are blueberries a natural fit in French cuisine, or do you believe there is room for growth and experimentation?
The idea of French cuisine is using what you have, so blueberries can be great in French cooking. My next blueberry dish might be a variation on duck à l’orange—I make a killer sauce with juniper that would be a great pairing for blueberries. We could call it the duck à la blueberry.
6. Why should chefs experiment more with blueberries?
Blueberries have a unique tartness that other berries don’t, so they can easily be applied in savory cooking. Obviously, you can juice them and make a variety of sweet or savory sauces. Texturally, blueberries can be applied in more ways because they are not gritty or seedy. And of course, there’s the beautiful color which can add visual interest to any dish.
7. What advice/tips would you give chefs considering adding blueberries into more unique applications on menus?
Wait to wash your blueberries until right before using them—that chalky exterior actually preserves their freshness. Just rinse them lightly right before cooking.
By Davina van Buren