Every summer, my family spends a week in southwest Michigan. It’s a tradition that started long before I was born, and it doesn’t show any signs of ending any time soon, thankfully. SW Michigan is home to vast stretches of beaches with soft sand rising up to wooded bluffs, more tourist-focused restaurants than you can shake a stick at, and fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. The soil and climate combine to make excellent growing conditions for fruit, and their summer markets are bursting with orchard fruits, grapes, and berries. (They make some excellent wines from those locally-grown grapes, too.)
So every year, the last thing I do before I get on the road to drive back west is stop at one of those markets. I will have cleverly packed my car so the passenger and back seats are jammed within an inch of their lives, while the hatch is completely empty – because that’s where I’m putting the fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. At least 25 pounds of peaches. Maybe another 10 or 20 pounds of apples. Plums, in various colors, and berries. Blackberries, raspberries. Blueberries, if they’re still good. (In recent years the blueberry harvest has been peaking earlier than our visit, so sometimes my parents take an extra weekend vacation to Michigan early and bring home literally 150 pounds of blueberries or so. I get at least 20 pounds of their haul each year.) And that’s just my fruit. The past few years, the car has been crammed to bursting with fruit for friends, too.
Then comes that 3-day stretch between vacation and back-to-work, when the entire focus of my life is FRUIT. Lots and lots of fruit. The peaches get turned into freezer peach salsa (so good, and the spicier the better), peach pie filling (frozen or canned), and straight-up canned peaches. The apples become apple pie filling or applesauce (both of these freeze and can well) or maybe apple chips on the dehydrator. The plums are sliced and frozen in a light syrup. The blackberries, fragile and ephemeral and irresistible, are eaten with steadily darkening fingers as I work on preserving the other fruits. The blueberries – they’re the easy part. Wash them, pick off any stems you notice, spread them out to dry, and then pop them into freezer boxes or bags and stick them in the freezer.
At the end of the weekend, I’m tired, my kitchen is sticky, the stains on my hands won’t budge for days, my back hurts, and I am SO GLAD I DID IT.
I just polished off one of those jars of straight-up peaches and thanked my summer self with every bite. The apple and peach pies I brought to my family Christmas party were delicious, made with really good fruit that wasn’t shipped here from another continent, and incidentally very easy to toss together since the filling was already made. The plums are a treat that, warmed and eaten with a bit of the syrup, make me deliriously happy on a cold winter night. The blueberries are all-purpose – I freeze so many of them in the summer that I’m using them all winter long in cobblers and crisps or our family blueberry sauce recipe, as ice cubes in a glass of lemonade or wine, in smoothies, or just plain, straight out of the freezer and into my mouth.
I preserve plenty of veggies all summer long, and I’ve got a freezer and pantry full of tomatoes, greens, corn, green beans, and lots more, but somehow it’s the fruit that’s most precious. Not just the stuff I bring back from vacation – we grow plenty of good fruit here in Iowa and Illinois, too, and I buy and preserve a lot of it. Especially apples – we grow darn tasty apples here, and my basic philosophy is that there’s no such thing as too many apples in the pantry and freezer. And as I make my way through all that fruit in the winter, I’m always reminded of summer – the joys of finding that fruit at markets or farms or in friends’ yards (and connecting with the people who grew it – something you can’t do with the New Zealand apple from the grocery store), the hard but satisfying work of putting the fruit up, and, of course, the tastes of summer. Tasting summer in February takes the edge off a grey sky and a sub-freezing temperature.
Here’s one way to do it: an easy blueberry cobbler than uses berries straight out of the freezer. It’s so good that I just might run through my 20 pounds of last summer’s berries before July.
2-3 cups frozen blueberries
3/4 cup (or less) sugar
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
3/4 cup milk
Toss the frozen blueberries with 1/4 cup or less of sugar. (1/8 cup would be fine if you’re watching your sugar, or even less.) Set aside.
Combine 1/2 cup sugar, flour, and baking powder.
Whisk melted butter and milk together. Gradually add flour mixture and continue whisking until smooth.
Pour in a greased pan – I’ve tried this in a 9×13 pan and an 8×8 pan, thinking it would work better in the latter. Honestly, in the 9×13 pan it LOOKED oddly flat and weird, but it TASTED better – the texture was much preferable, in my opinion. It took longer to cook in the 8×8 pan, so it got a little chewy around the edges. But it sure looked weird in the 9×13 pan. You make the call when you cook it. I think I would opt for weird appearance but superior taste.
Anyway, once you’ve chosen a pan, greased it, and poured the batter in, you scatter the blueberries over the batter. When I used the 9×13 pan, I wanted more than 2 cups of berries – 3 would be perfect. With the 8×8 pan, 2 cups of berries is just right.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35-45 minutes, until the corners brown. Cool a bit and serve – maybe with some homemade whipped cream? Mmmmm. Summer in February – enjoy!