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It's Blackberry Time!

Shakespeare alleged that nothing is certain but death and taxes. In the Rogue Valley grows another thorny certainty, blackberries. A relative of the rose, these canefruits hug barns, crawl on fences, and sprawl along country roads. Thriving along riverbanks, these hardy berries are hard to reach, yet easy to enjoy. Once carefully plucked, each purple-fingered favorite adds rich color and flavor that enhances sweet and savory dishes.

Owner and chef Jim Potter of Rooster's Restaurant in Medford serves dozens of baked and fresh mixed berry pies. He suggests purchasing berries that you can use in a day or two, and using them as soon as you wash them. "Wash them very carefully by floating them in a big bowl of chilled water," he says, "gently swirl them around in the bowl and remove the stems and leaves." Then strain them, and use them promptly. Among the most fragile fruits, once washed, they'll retain moisture and quickly mold.

At home, keep unwashed berries in the refrigerator. Although Ashland's Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant chef Amy Killian says they'll last in cool storage for about a week, berries do well in the freezer. She suggests placing a single layer of washed berries on a sheet tray or cookie sheet and quickly freeze. If you simply put them in a container in the freezer, you'll end up with a large lump of berries. Once individually frozen, transfer to a storage container or zip-close bag where they'll keep for many months.

Introduced nearly 150 years ago by Luther Burbank, the blackberry has climbed into the noxious weed category. The fearsome blackberry is patriarch of the Pacific Northwest berry family. Often bred with the raspberry, its many offshoots include Marion, Logan, and Boysenberries.

Each with its own nuances, the berries can be used interchangeably in cooking, says Medford's Café Dejeuner chef Bryan Nystrom. He notes that cooking a dish with berries and protein is a classic technique. "We make a blackberry Chambord chicken," says Killian. "The sauce also pairs well with blackened chicken, salmon and it goes really well with venison. It pairs well with the gaminess of the meat," she says. "Maybe since deer eat blackberries."

When fresh local berries are in season, combine them in salads with nuts and citrus, top meats with their sauces, and of course, enjoy them in desserts.

For easy berry desserts like grunts, slumps and crumbles, start each with ripe berries. These easy-to-assemble desserts have no crust or bottom so there's no measuring, rolling or mess. Simply place the clean, dry berries in a square baking dish and top with a mixture of butter, oatmeal, and sugar, then bake it until the top is golden brown and the berries are bubbling. At the Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant they add diced crystallized ginger to the berries (available at most grocers) and top it with Bailey's Irish Cream ice cream. Yum.

Whether preserving them for future treats or serving them in varied dishes, big, dark blackberries are a summertime taste to be savored. And by freezing some, it's easy to breakfast, lunch and dine on them all year long.

During blackberry season Chef Byran Nystrom at Café Dejeuner pairs the berries with sweet chipotle in this summer and fall salad sensation. He shares his recipe for Sweet Harvest Blackberry Chipotle Vinaigrette and Grilled Chicken Breast salad with Joy readers. Vinaigrette Salad Dressing: Puree blackberries in food processor. Strain seeds and place puree in mixing bowl with other ingredients except oils. While whisking, drizzle in oils to emulsify. Salad: Bring small saucepan of salted water to a boil. Blanche carrots until fork tender then shock in ice water bath. In batches, blanche beans and vegetables, making sure water covers the vegetables so they cook evenly. Assemble: Cut the blanched vegetables in half and place in large bowl with arugula, blue cheese, blackberries, hazelnuts and coat with dressing. Place cooked chicken on top. Enjoy the sweet and spicy sensation. Do ahead: Vinaigrette and vegetables can be made 2 hours ahead, even a day in advance, if needed.

Serves 4-6

Prep & total time is 35 minutes.

1/2 pound blackberries

1 tablespoon chipotle pepper

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup vegetable oil

Salt and pepper to taste

(2) 8 ounce bags of baby arugula

1 pint fresh local blackberries

1 bunch peeled baby organic carrots (optional)

3/4 pound fresh green beans, trimmed

1/2 pound fingerling potatoes

8 ounces blue cheese crumbles

6-8 ounces roasted hazelnuts, chopped

4 large boneless skinless chicken breasts

Drizzle chicken breasts with oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Grill over medium heat, 15-20 minutes until done. Let rest before slicing.

It's Blackberry Time!