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Berried by birth

Berrying, to this native Oregonian, is a birthright.

I can’t recall a time when picking berries didn’t play into my outdoor forays. Starting around age 3, I sought Oregon’s elusive salmonberries on the coastal headlands adjacent to Coos County’s Seven Devils Road. Peachy-pink when perfectly ripe, salmonberries were the first to confirm that supermarket berries are pale pretenders to piquant berries plucked from the wild.

Over the years, I never passed up chances to sample berries from the landscape: strawberries rambling over the dunes, salal berries bordering beachfront hiking trails, huckleberries hunkering under fir stands in my hometown, thimbleberries from my own weedy backyard and, of course, blackberries from any roadside patch throughout the state.

Those carefree childhood summers are still within reach just outside my back door. The bike path paralleling our property near the Rogue River is resplendent in blackberries of several types, each with its specific season and flavor. My two sons have come to view these berries as their birthright, too, particularly when I do most of the picking to fill their quart buckets.

My older son loves to ponder blackberries’ status as invasive species — save one — although the distinction doesn’t do much to tarnish their appeal. We make sure to pick from only healthy patches that have been hacked back from the path, rather than sprayed with herbicide, which causes them to wither and brown.

Indeed, chemicals and oven-like air are the few inhibitors of Oregon’s “wild” blackberries. Southern Oregon’s mild summer has so far kept the berries lush and juicy, and we’re still finding plenty of unripe berries in the brambles.

First to ripen are the state’s native trailing blackberries. Found abundantly on prairies, burns, clearings and in dense woodlands, these small berries are very tart and flavorful, ideal for pies, jams and jellies.

Most plentiful in Oregon are the perniciously prolific Himalayan blackberries. Medium-sized and ripe mid-season, these purple-black berries have a very mild flavor. Introduced by celebrated horticulturist Luther Burbank at the turn of the 20th century, the berries native to Germany have overrun roadways, waterways and any area in the American West where humans have disturbed land.

Evergreen blackberries are last to ripen. Similar to Himalayan blackberries, evergreen are even milder in flavor but firmer. Native to England, they appeared with European explorers in Oregon around 1850 and spread along the Pacific coast. Bushes are very thorny, and the fruit very seedy.

Flavor and their proximity to our home aren’t the only recommendations for blackberries, which we obtain without spending a penny. Nutritionally speaking, blackberries are top contenders for superfood status. Boasting plenty of vitamins A, B and C — plus more antioxidants than blueberries — blackberries promote heart health and help to reduce the risk of cancer and stroke.

Packed with disease- and age-fighting phytonutrients, blackberries contain tannins that soothe inflammation, including in the gums. So the stains around my kids’ lips indicate a boost to their oral health. All those benefits and more come with a modest calorie count: just 62 in a cup of blackberries, which also boasts 8 grams of fiber, one of the highest dietary sources, courtesy of all those seeds.

Berries don’t lose nutritional value or flavor when they are frozen, an ideal method for extending their season. Wash blackberries, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet, freeze and transfer to plastic, freezer-proof bags to keep for six months to a year. Berries will stay firmer and brighter when frozen if first sprinkled with pectin, a thrifty way to use expired powder no longer suitable for jam.

Frozen blackberries are my favorites to keep on hand for impromptu turnovers, cobblers and crisps throughout the year. A food preserver’s dream, they’re easily stashed in the freezer until inspiration strikes to make jam or jelly. Just make sure to label freezer bags with the measured quantities when the berries were fresh to ensure the accuracy of recipes for preserves. Easier still, frozen blackberries can be simmered into compotes, syrups and sauces for topping pancakes, French toast, yogurt and ice cream.

Crisp recently won out over a more involved cobbler after my sons and I returned from blackberry picking. I made the dessert extra special by portioning into miniature, heart-shaped baking pans. For a truly celebratory occasion, I like to make blackberry cheesecake tart, adapted from a bar-cookie recipe to a tart pan with removable bottom.

Blackberry Crisp

3 cups fresh blackberries (4 cups if frozen and thawed)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon each: vanilla and almond extracts

1-1/2 tablespoons corn or potato starch

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup old-fashioned oats

1/3 cup light-brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of salt

6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, toss together the berries, lemon zest, sugar and extracts. Sprinkle on the starch and toss again. Mound berries into a shallow glass pie plate or divide among individual baking dishes.

In another bowl, mix the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. With a pastry cutter or clean fingertips, work the butter into mixture just until it comes together and large clumps form.

Sprinkle topping evenly over fruit. Bake in preheated oven until fruit is bubbling and topping is golden-brown and crisp, for about 20 minutes. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Blackberry Cheesecake Tart

Swirl:

6 ounces fresh blackberries

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Crust:

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Filling:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

6 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the berries, sugar and lemon zest. Cook until berries collapse, for about 5 minutes. Press through a medium-mesh sieve; discard seeds. Chill.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust, measure the flour, sugar, butter and salt into bowl of a food processor. Pulse to damp clumps. Slide in the toasted almonds and pulse a few times.

Dump this crumble into a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom and pat firmly onto pan’s bottom and sides. Alternatively, line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper and leave some overhang for removing cheesecake. Scatter crumble into pan and pat firmly onto bottom (there will not be enough crust to extend up sides).

Bake crust in preheated oven until tan and fragrant, for about 18 minutes. Cool.

For filling, measure all the ingredients into bowl of a food processor and swirl until smooth. Spread over prebaked crust.

Pour blackberry puree into stripes over cheesecake batter. Use a fork to swirl purple into white.

Bake in preheated oven until wiggly in center, for about 25 minutes. Allow to cool, then chill.

Either press tart pan’s removable bottom up through sides to free cheesecake for slicing, or if using a square pan, grasp parchment, pull cheesecake out of pan and cut into squares.

Makes 8 to 12 servings.

Tune into Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Photo by Sarah Lemon A mess of blackberries freshly picked along the Rogue River.
Photo by Sarah Lemon Miniature blackberry crisp is a treat after berry picking with kids.