The state flower of Oregon looks like holly and grows throughout much of Cascadia. Anyone who spends time in the woods from Northern California up through British Columbia is familiar with its prickly green leaves, bright yellow blooms, and the tart berries that form in clusters in summer. It’s not exactly trail food. Pick a few berries on a hike and you’ll experience a lip-puckering flavor that gives new meaning to the term sour grapes. But tame it with sugar and you’ve got a whole realm of culinary possibilities.
Oregon-grape is not a true grape. Though its dark blue berries hang in grape-like clusters, that’s where the comparison ends. Members of the family Berberidaceae, the various species of Oregon-grape are also known for their medicinal qualities. The two species commonly encountered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest are the tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and low Oregon-grape (Mahonia nervosa). Some botanists consider them part of the Berberis genus, which includes a variety of species commonly called barberries and which are renowned for containing berberine, a compound with cancer-fighting and anti-depressant properties, among other medicinal benefits.
To make Oregon-grape preserves wear gloves and harvest a good quantity of the berries. I picked five pounds or so from a patch behind my daughter’s pre-K, right in the center of Seattle. Use containers and utensils that won’t stain. Wash the berries and remove any large stems or other leafy debris. Put the berries in a pot and add just enough water so that the berries are barely covered. Boil for 15 minutes until soft, then run through a food-mill in batches. The food-mill should separate the juice and pulp from the skins and seeds.
Now you have a choice: You can further strain the juice from the pulp by using cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer, or you can leave the pulp in to make a preserve more aptly called a spread. Next measure your juice. I had a scant 5 cups. In general you’ll want to add an equivalent amount of sugar, give or take depending on your taste. Try mixing in other fruits or berries, too, or even ginger. Bring your juice to a boil and stir in the optional lemon juice and pectin. I used about half of a 1.75 oz package. Next add the sugar, not all at once but slowly, tasting as you go until reaching your preferred balance between tart and sweet. Bring to a boil again, stirring thoroughly, and cook for a few minutes, then remove from heat and immediately ladle into sterilized jars. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Yield: 3 1/2 pints
While Oregon-grape preserves look and taste a lot like your standard grape jelly, the flavor is more complex and full-bodied, with a sweetness that will please children and a tart edge suitable to a grown-up palate. I think it makes a terrific PB&J yet a dollop is equally at home on a fancy cheese plate.