Berries may just be my favorite summer treat. And when I say berries, I mean all berries. Just when my favorite ones start to fade out of season, a new one comes along and sweeps me off my feet. I can't be sad when my dazzling red strawberries end their season in mid-June, because I know that deep purple blackberries and dusty pink raspberries will just be hitting their stride, with blueberries tagging along not too far behind. Best of all, I keep finding odd new berries I never knew about. Three years ago I had my first run-in with wild plums (not really a berry, but it does grow on a large shrubby tree), and two years ago Dustin Kelly introduced me to his outrageously delicious wild-foraged autumn berries from Autumn Berry Inspired in the form of fruit leather and jam. Since then I've also discoveredaronia berries from Teresa's Fruit and Herbs and tart gooseberries. And this year...well this year I discovered saskatoons!
Saskatoons also have a variety of other names. Sometimes they are referred to as service berries, juneberries, shadbush, and prairie berry. Given those options, you can clearly see why I went with "saskatoons." The name also makes me oddly more excited about eating the berries, because let's be honest, it's just plain fun to say!
Anywho, these berries came from my family's farm. My Dad planted the trees, a native species of Illinois, several years ago and the berries were in full bloom this year. When fully ripe, they have a flavor reminiscent of a blueberry, but when not fully ripe they are somewhat bland. Luckily, the berries continue to ripen after they are picked, which means unlike wild plums, you don't have to wait for the perfect berry to ripen on the tree, and that's a good thing, because apparently the birds like a ripe saskatoon just as much as I do. Last week when I visited the farm I honestly couldn't believe how many berries we had this year and thought I'd be eating saskatoons for days. I picked enough to make two pies, with plans to return for more the following week. But when I came back, I found that the trees were wiped clean of berries! It seems the birds discovered the saskatoons just a few days after we did. The moral of the story is, if you want to try a saskatoon, get to them before the birds do!
The trees are fairly common in central Illinois, so you may see them scattered along hedge rows or growing wild, but you can also check around with local farmers to see if they have any pre-picked berries available. I was surprised and delighted to see service berries on a Local Flavors Menu at Edge by Chef Dustin Allen last week, so I know it's possible to find them locally.
As far as health benefits go, saskatoons stack up nicely against other berries, with more cancer-fighting antioxidants than both blueberries and strawberries. They are an excellent source of manganese, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, copper and carotene and are considered a better source of calcium than red meats, vegetables and cereals (Saskatoon Berry Institute).
I enjoyed eating them fresh from the tree, but, like most berries, they are great for freezing and baking. One of my new favorite recipes is berry custard pie. The recipe is forgiving and can be adapted to suit any berry. In fact, I made my first custard pie using rhubarb, and using almost the exact same recipe, made another pie featuring saskatoons. The custard provides a clean flavor to complement the bright berries and a creamy texture that makes every bight just dreamy. Here's what you'll need.