Last week Martha and I spent a couple days mountain biking near Winthrop, Washington, not far from North Cascades National Park. On our way home we couldn’t resist stopping off at a few roadside patches bursting with fruit. Elderberries were already ripening, and chokecherry trees hung heavy in the sun.
The chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is a shrub or small tree native to much of North America, mostly above the Mason-Dixon line. Here in Washington State, as in much of the Western U.S., chokecherries prefer drier habitats (in our case, rain-shadow terrain east of the Cascade Crest), such as arid canyons, gullies, and scrubby benches above lakes or streams, where you’ll sometimes find them clustered with elderberries and serviceberries. Named for their astringency, chokecherries get sweeter as they darken, but if you wait too long the birds and other critters will nab them first.
Martha and I grabbed plastic grocery bags repurposed just for such an occasion (I always keep a few handy in the car) and started pulling bunches of fruit from the trees as cedar waxwings and robins voiced their disapproval from above. Martha tasted one off the vine; her mouth went into an instant and involuntary pucker. Though it was a little early, we scouted for trees with the ripest fruit, knowing this harvest would need some sugar at home. It didn’t take long to amass several pounds between the two of us.
Jelly is probably my favorite use for chokecherries. I’ve also had them in a chunkier form preserved in sweet syrup. This was on the Umatilla Indian Reservation during the First Foods ceremony last spring. Along with a variety of roots, huckleberries, venison, and, of course, salmon, the chokecherry is revered by the Umatilla as one of their original food staples, and no wonder. They grow in profusion throughout the drier parts of the Pacific Northwest, and with a little processing that involuntary pucker becomes a lip-smacking grin.
We washed and rinsed our chokecherries at home and then covered them with water in a kettle. The kitchen soon filled with a distinctive cherry aroma as they simmered on the stove. After processing the fruit we had two quarts of fuchsia-colored juice. One quart got put up for a future jelly-making session and the other went back into the pot. The resulting jelly is easily one of the most beautiful for its luminous color, right up there with Rosehip Jelly. It’s pink and doesn’t look like anything you’d expect to find in nature. Even with added pectin, the jelly is soft and smooth, barely holding together, which is just how we like it.
This recipe is for 4 cups of chokecherry juice. It’s on the tart side. If you like your jelly sweeter, or you have less juice, adjust accordingly. You’ll need to add a commercial pectin because chokecherries are low in natural pectin.
4 cups chokecherry juice
5 cups sugar
1 package (1.75 oz) dry pectin
1/2 cup lemon juice
1. Cover chokecherries with water in a non-reactive stock pot and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, occasionally mashing softened chokecherries with a potato masher. Allow to cool, then strain juice through cheesecloth or jelly bag.
2. Return 4 cups chokecherry juice to pot along with pectin and lemon juice. Bring to boil and add sugar, stirring. After a minute of hard boiling (careful not to foam over), reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring.
3. Remove from heat and skim foam. Ladle into sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/2 inch head room, and secure lids. Process jars in hot water bath for 10 minutes.