Berries have long been appreciated as a tasty addition to salads, breakfast foods and desserts, as well as a base for sauces. But as the focus on healthier eating has intensified, berries have gained in importance because of their healthful qualities, and non-commercial operators are now making them more available on menus and serving lines.
“Having a clinical background, I know the importance of antioxidants and whole, unprocessed foods in a diet,” says Caesar Desiato, location manager/executive chef for Aramark at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “At any time of the day I make available fresh berries, flax seeds, sunflower seeds and avocado. We sell whole avocado as if it were an orange, apple or banana. The recent surge in the interest in superfoods has increased the awareness of healthier food choices. I try and make available a selection of seeds and berries so our guests have the option to jazz up their food choices with good-for-you type foods.
“We offer berries in several different ways, primarily fresh blueberries, sourced from local New Jersey farms when possible,” Desiato adds. “Fresh berries are available as adjuncts to our morning breakfast menu as well as in yogurt parfaits. An extremely popular choice is as a topping for pancakes.”
Tim Fetter, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh, says berries are always a popular item on any menu.
“We serve strawberries and blueberries every day for breakfast and they are always one of the first things to go,” Fetter says. “From a health standpoint, there aren’t too many bad things that you can say about berries. They are high in vitamin C, antioxidants, and many other vitamins and minerals. They are obviously great in desserts and smoothies due to the fact that, if they’re ripe and in season, most of them are naturally sweet and can cut down on the amount of sweetener.
“Summertime is always a great time to add berries to salads and salad dressings. I have a simple recipe for a great arugula salad,” Fetter says. “The sweetness of the berries goes great with the slight bitterness and peppery flavor of the arugula as well as the strong flavor of the blue cheese. It can easily be made into an entrée by adding pork or chicken.”
Shawn Lively, general manager and executive chef at RiverWoods Ridgecrest, a retirement community in Lewisburg, Pa., offers a raspberry tea on the menu but focuses on different types of berries at different times of year.
“In the summer, we promote berries,” Lively says. “We’ll offer strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. They fare well as toppings and to dress up salads. In the winter months, we use teaberries. They are locally grown and are used to make ice cream and other things that taste like mint.”
Lively also manages to incorporate berries into some of the entrées and classic desserts.
“We use blueberries and raspberries to make a fresh chutney, a popular topping for entrées such as salmon and duck,” he says. “We also make a raspberry coulis to top off our crème brulee.”
Mark LoParco, director of Dining Services at the University of Montana, prefers his berries in desserts.
“We use them in traditional pies, like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries,” he says. “We also use huckleberries in some entrees. They are very prominent around here.”
“A lot of people think of Montana and think of huckleberries,” says Patrick Browne, executive sous chef at the university. “We use them in all sorts of ways, like in drinks and ice cream. One thing we do is juxtapose the fruit into something savory as an entrée special. Because of its short growing season, we only use it in certain months.
“We’re extremely proud of our farm-to-college program,” Browne adds. “We are constantly evolving our food program to include fresh and local whole foods. We make a cherry barbecue sauce from cherries that are locally grown and pitted by a local processor. We use currants of all sorts in parfaits and we have a raspberry chicken dish as one of our entrée options.”
Browne says he hasn’t noticed an increase interest in berries, but they are always welcomed.
“Everyone is familiar with berries and if you find some when you’re out hiking it’s very refreshing at the moment, but otherwise I don’t hear anyone saying, gosh, I wish I had berries,” Browne says. “The great thing about being a chef is that I get to creatively bring berries to the forefront of the menu and spark an interest in them. That’s what’s in it for me.”
Marcy Erhard, spokesperson for the United States Highbush Blueberry Council, says blueberries are popular because they are easy to use. “There’s so little labor involved,” Erhard says. “There’s no cutting, no pitting, no peeling; you just rinse them and put them anywhere you like. And they’re no longer just a breakfast item, for toppings on oatmeal, cereals and pancakes. People are putting them in sauces and salads, everywhere.” Erhard has staged blueberry promotions at several colleges, including the University of Massachusetts, Michigan State and Penn State. “Everyone knows that blueberries are tasty, but they don’t necessarily know how healthy they are,” she says. “We supply artwork and leaflets and recipes to promote the versatility and the accessibility of the berry as well as its wonderful health halo of antioxidants and vitamin C. We try to get the word out regarding the healthfulness of the whole food and hopefully keep the blueberry on the menu throughout the year. We have a great salad that is very popular among stu- dents, a blueberry spinach salad with a hot bacon dressing.”
Anna Bullett, culinary development and nutrition specialist at CulinArt, based in Plainview, N.Y., also loves using blueberries.
“We do a blueberry promotion every July,” Bullett says. “Obviously, they are a great superfood and readily available, either fresh, frozen or canned. You can use them in smoothies, as toppings, in desserts or in a savory chutney that goes over pork chops. We offer a marinated flank steak with blueberry chimichurri sauce. Blueberry chimichurri is best when made shortly in advance of serving.”
Bullett also has created a blueberry orange stuffed French toast, as well as the traditional blueberry scones, snack bars and muffins.
“You can also do a lot with different berries in salads,” she says. “We do blueberries and peach slices over smoked turkey and lettuce. I also like to put apples in my chicken salad, but blueberries can work just as well.”
Berries in general and blueberries in particular are now highly regarded as one of the best superfoods around.
“While all berries offer health benefits in the form of fiber and high levels of free-radical fighting antioxidants, blueberries are truly a star thanks to their affordability, availability and versatility,” Bullett says. “Blue- berries can add pizzazz to breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. We try to think beyond the yogurt parfait and berry pancakes during July by featuring blueberries in many dishes throughout the month. While fresh tastes best when eaten out of hand, frozen are excellent in baked goods and sauces or as stuffing or toppings.”