Category Archives: berries

Chokecherry Jelly

chokecherry1Last 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.

The Nagoonberry

nagoon1I have a favorite new berry. It’s called a nagoonberry. Haven’t heard of nagoonberries? Well, you’re not alone—and you probably don’t spend much time in Alaska, where I happen to be right now.

Here in Cordova, just about everyone knows the nagoonberry. And now that I do, too, I could be persuaded to journey north just to get my hands on these delicious “arctic raspberries,” never mind the salmon fishing.

The nagoonberry, Rubus arcticus, is a wine-red relative of blackberries and raspberries that grows in northern climates around the world, from Alaska and Canada to Finland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The name comes from Tlingit Indian “neigóon,” meaning little jewels that pop from the ground. The low-lying plant, with its three-lobed, serrated leaves, hugs boggy terrain on both the coast and interior of Alaska. They’re not prolific, though I’ve been told that berry-pickers in Cordova gather good quantities for jam, liqueur, and fruit leather. The flavor belies its geographical distribution with a tropical Hawaiian Punch twist on a typical blackberry.

By late August, the pickings around Cordova are slim, but yesterday there were still enough ripe nagoonberries in the wet, mossy meadows just off the roadside to give me a taste of something totally new. And now I’m hooked. These berries are something special and worth seeking out if you’re in the North Country.

Wild Berry Scones

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If you live in the Pacific Northwest and haven’t picked your fair share of trailing blackberries and red huckleberries yet…best hurry up. They’re mostly done at sea level now, and with this heat they’re likely ready to close up shop in the Cascade foothills soon.

wrote about red huckleberryVaccinium parvifolium, earlier this year in Seattle Magazine. Tart and pretty, it’s the first of our huckleberries to fruit in the Pacific Northwest. The trailing blackberry, Rubus ursinus, deserves ink too. It’s smaller and firmer in comparison to non-native relatives such as the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry, with a more complex taste profile. Unlike other varieties, trailing blackberries don’t grow on upright canes; they snake along the ground and over deadfall  (see photo above), hence their common name.

Together, red hucks and trailing blackberries are a pastry chef’s dream team. Both species are usually present in the same woods and ripen at roughly the same time (generally throughout July in my habitat), which means you can target both in a single outing.

Apparently it’s a poor year for trailing blackberries, at least on a commercial level. Most of the blackberries I put up for winter are non-native varieties, the Himalayan blackberry in particular, because they happen to be plentiful around where I live, but if I wanted to pick a good quantity of the native variety, I’d head over to the Olympic Peninsula and start poking around in old clearcuts. All blackberries thrive in areas of disturbance (e.g., logged or burned forests, along trails and roadsides, in abandoned lots). The patches with more sunlight will produce heavier crops, which is why old clearcuts are a good choice.

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I usually rely on my mother-in-law for scones. She mails them to us every now and again in carefully packed boxes. But the other day, while taking a group on a wild food ID walk in the foothills, I couldn’t get the image of berry-laden scones out of my head, so I went back the next day to collect some of the bounty on colorful display, determined to make my own scones.

I wasn’t the only forager in the woods. I see bears in this area every year at about this time, within 20 miles of downtown Seattle. A hiker I met on the trail was concerned about the hand-scrawled warning note (at left). I assured him the bears were too busy enjoying berries to worry about his skinny ass, but he didn’t seem convinced.

Here’s a recipe for scones that I cobbled together from a few online offerings. Since I didn’t have buttermilk, I substituted yogurt whisked with a little milk. If you like sweet scones, add more sugar.

2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 heaping tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup wild berries
1/2 cup yogurt
2 tbsp milk
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon zest (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Sift dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, salt) together into a large bowl.

3. Whisk together wet ingredients (yogurt, milk, and 1 egg) in a medium bowl.

4.  Cut cold butter into small pieces and, using fingers, work into dry ingredients until mealy. Stir in berries, optional lemon zest, and wet ingredients until barely mixed, with a little of the dry flour remaining in bottom of bowl.

5. Remove to a floured work surface. Briefly knead dough so it holds together and forms a disk several inches in diameter and about an inch thick. The dough will be wet and you’ll be reminded of making mud pies as a kid—don’t fret! Cut a dozen or so wedges out of the disk and place on a greased baking pan. You may need to use a pie knife or spatula to transfer wedges from work surface to pan.

6. Whisk second egg and brush egg wash on wedges.

7. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

The Berry Hour

salal1It’s berry time. I took a group of would-be foragers out to a state forest the other day, and they were amazed by the diversity of berries available for harvest right now. In fact, I had to crack the whip a few times to keep the gang moving, so entranced were they by the sweet bounty available trailside.

Red huckleberries and trailing blackberries (the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest, Rubus ursinus) are at their peak. Non-native Himalayan blackberries are ripening in sunny spots and will be abundant in a couple weeks. Thimbleberries are past their peak at lower elevations, but you can go higher and find them in good shape. We also found blackcap raspberries, which I don’t see as frequently as some of the other species. A number of others that get overlooked by the average berry picker were ripening in forest openings, such as Oregon grape and salal (pictured at top), and will continue to be available deep into summer; though a challenge to the palate right off the vine, with a little processing and some added sugar, they can make excellent preserves, sauces, and leathers.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a new book that provides in-depth information on just about all the wild berry-producing plants and trees you’re likely to find in the region, native and otherwise. T. Abe Lloyd and Fiona Hamersley Chambers’ Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon collects into a single volume more than fifty groups of berry-bearing plants, including well known varieties such as blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, and serviceberries—and lesser-knowns: hawthorns, crowberries, hackberries, and many more.

I’ve often wondered about the tempting red berries of the mountain-ash, Sorbus spp. The authors begin their entry on the genus, “The bitter-tasting fruits of these trees are high in vitamin C and can be eaten raw, cooked or dried.” Apparently, a number of tribes in my area used them to “marinate meat such as marmot or to flavor salmon head soup,” and they’re also used in jellies, jams, pies, ale, and a bittersweet wine. The final verdict on edibility: Edible, but not great.

Many others, however, get two thumbs up. The text is sprinkled with recipes for making jams, jellies, syrups, cordials, dressings, leathers, pies, cobblers, and muffins, and the authors also offer updated culinary twists for old standbys such as the Native American energy food pemmican, retooled to use huckleberries or serviceberries mixed with beef jerky and nuts.

Flipping through Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon got me so revved up for summer’s bounty that I braved the I-90 floating bridge closure yesterday and visited some of my favorite berry patches. Stay tuned for a Wild Berry Scone recipe next week.

Know Your Vacciniums

huck1Fly fishermen like to joke about PhD trout and poindexter anglers crawling the banks spouting Latin. On first blush it may seem pretentious to be holding a trout rod in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, while reeling off the taxonomic names of various species of Baetis and PteronarcysBut the truth is, the fly fisherman who has an understanding of entomology has a cast up on the one who doesn’t.

And so it is with huckleberries. In the Pacific Northwest there are at least a dozen species of Vaccinium, and it pays to recognize them all. There are early fruiting huckleberries (the red huckleberryVaccinium parvifolium) and late fruiting huckleberries (evergreen huckleberryVaccinium ovatum); there are tart, bright blue huckleberries that make good jam (Vaccinium ovalifolium) and nearly black huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) that taste great right off the vine. There’s a huckleberry that colonizes wetter habitats (Vaccinium deliciosum) and one that can be found high in the mountains (Vaccinium caespitosum). Read this post for more tips on huckleberrying.

The other day I visited my patch of Vaccinium membranceum. This is the main species picked and sold commercially. It’s big, which makes for faster picking, and sweet. It goes by various common names including thin-leaf huckleberry, globe huckleberry, and mountain black. This is a decent year for V. membranaceum and I would encourage my readers in the Greater Pacific Northwest to search it out. Right now! It’s common in the mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, and British Columbia, with more localized populations south to California and east to the Upper Great Lakes.

We freeze as many huckleberries as we can pick, and eat them year-round. As I say in Fat of the Land, huckleberries are a baker’s wet dream. The balance between sweet and tart is ideal for pastries, and they make the best pies, cobblerscrisps, and tarts.

But we’re not the only members of Mammalia with a sweet tooth for Vaccinium and its allies. Ursus americanus and Ursus arctos horribilis are fans, too, so be prepared to share!

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Wild Red Raspberry

red_raspberry1Each summer we visit family in the Colorado Rockies, where it’s tradition to kick off the trip with a walk up to the same overlook, a place we dubbed the “Bear’s Lair” more than a decade ago after spooking a bear from its fern-matted day bed nearby.

The route to the Bear’s Lair follows an old hunter’s jeep track up a ridge through oak scrub and aspen glades, finally topping out on a knoll covered in spruce and lodgepole pine. Sadly, the large pines are all dead now, victims of the pine beetle epidemic that’s ravaged Colorado in recent years, and the forest doesn’t offer the same respite from the sun that it once did. But the woods are still painted in wildflowers and home to a herd of elk that moves quietly among the hidden meadows and quaking aspens. From there a quick scramble up a dry, dusty slope and over big boulders takes us to the Lair. A single Douglas fir twists out of the rocks and shades the place. We sit up there and admire the view back across the valley. Sometimes we spot golden eagles circling high in the thermals above.

I’ve hiked to the Bear’s Lair countless times in summer and snowshoed up in winter. It’s become a ritual to pay our respects here. Yet, on this trip, for the first time, I noticed a nice little patch of wild red raspberries growing from cracks in the rocks right around the base of the Lair, in perfect fruit. How had I missed these before? Could they have just gotten a foothold?

More to the point: Who doesn’t love raspberries? Sweet, tart, soft, delicate. Ruby red. I’m more familiar with the blackcap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis), which we find back at home in sunny spots on both sides of the Cascades, often in areas of disturbance such as logging clearcuts. Blackcaps are dark blue or purple and often mistaken for blackberries; the more widely known form, Rubus strigosus (or Rubus idaeus among those who consider Eurpopean and North American red raspberries to be the same species) looks very much like a typical cultivated variety, if a bit smaller. Unlike a lot of domesticated fruits and berries with wild relatives, the taste of the wild raspberry is very similar to the cultivated.

Wild raspberries seem to prefer marginal habitats and tough growing conditions. As a result, it’s a rare day when I find enough of them to make a dessert or put up for later. They’re trail food—a tasty jolt of energy while hoofing it through the wilderness. And this day was no different. We ate up all the ripe berries we could find, leaving behind plenty that would be ripe for the local bruins in a few days, taking note of this cache for future visits to the Bear’s Lair.

Summer Berries

huck3The hot dry weather in the Pacific Northwest has pushed the berry season along at a rapid clip. It looks like the red huckleberries have already peaked through much of the lowlands around Puget Sound, with our native blackberries close behind.

huck2On Sunday I took a class berry-picking on Bainbridge Island. Whereas two years ago on the same date we had bushes overflowing with red huckleberries and even salmonberries, this year the red hucks were already long past their prime and there wasn’t a single salmonberry in sight. The sunny spots still had a few trailing blackberries, and we found one patch of blackcap raspberries. I watched a towhee skillfully nabbing huckleberries on the wing, a hint of where all the berries had gone.

Nevertheless, we managed to pick enough huckleberries to make berry tartlets (see recipe here) back at the park center, putting a sweet exclamation on a day pleasantly divided between field and kitchen.

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Saskatoon Berry Sauce

saskatoon1In eastern Washington, wild Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia)—aka western serviceberry, shadbush, and juneberry—grow near the extensive orchards of cherries, apples, and pears that follow the river valleys. The Wenatchee River corridor near Leavenworth is loaded with Saskatoons, and it’s interesting to see how this free food is all but ignored while the domesticated fruit trees are bombed with pesticides, tended to by an underclass of migrant workers out of Mexico, and fawned over by tourists.

The other day I picked a good quantity of Saskatoons in view of the orchards while passing motorists wondered what the heck this crazy guy was up to. The paradoxes of modern food culture pile up on our plates…

saskatoon2A Saskatoon sauce is just the thing this time of year to dress up a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. Or you can add some vinegar and herbs to make a savory sauce. Most of the recipes you’ll find online are too sweet and use corn starch as a thickener. Don’t follow the herd! The berries are plenty sweet on their own, and they’ll thicken into a nice sauce with a little extra simmer time and whisking. For a dessert sauce I also like to add a little lemon zest in addition to the juice. Remember that these berries have noticeable seeds. The seeds add a nutty dimension to the flavor, but if you’re picky about your texture, you can cook this sauce down (with more time and water) and run it through a food mill or strainer.

saskatoon32 cups Saskatoon berries
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp lemon juice
lemon zest, to taste

Bring the berries and water to boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer for several minutes. Whisk in sugar, lemon juice, and zest. Continue to simmer and whisk until sauce is thickened to taste. Add more water if necessary.

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A Forager’s Thanksgiving

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re lucky to have a climate that allows for foraging year-round, even during the dark, wet days of late fall and winter. If you’re hoping to include a few wild foods in your Thanksgiving feast, keep reading…

Wild Mushrooms

By late November, those of us in Washington need to think more strategically about our mushroom hunting spots. The bread-and-butter golden chanterelle harvest is mostly done by this time, the surviving specimens oversized, floppy, and waterlogged. Skiers own the mountains now and even many low-elevation habitats should be ruled out because of recurring hard frosts. Head for the coast or the southern Olympic Peninsula and look for microclimates where fungi can persist. Search out those hardier winter species such as yellowfoot chanterelles and hedgehogs. Hint: they prefer moist, mossy forests and plenty of woody decay.

If you’re willing to travel, make tracks for southwestern Oregon where kings and matsutake are still available. My favorite this time of year, though, is the black trumpet, which is just starting to fruit and can be found in mixed forests with oak. Sautéed in a little butter, it tastes just like fall.

Shellfish

We’re coming into the high time for shellfish. The summer spawn is over and the clams, mussels, oysters, and crabs are putting meat back in their shells, rather than using their fat reserves for reproduction.

Many a Nor’westerner likes to give a regional twist to the Turkey Day dinner, including a shellfish course of soup or stew, or simply a mess of Dungeness crabs on the table to kick off the proceedings. I try to dive for my crabs when I can, though the seafood market is a dry alternative. One year I made a Dungie crab bisque for twenty. It was time-consuming peeling all that crab—I’d recommend shelling out (pardon the pun) for lump crab meat instead—but oh so decadent and delicious. Unfortunately, by the time the labor-intensive bisque was ready, I think many of us were too deep into a Northwest wine tasting to fully appreciate it.

An elegant, tomato-based shellfish stew in the Italian tradition is a great way to charm your guests and add European flair to the American meal. I make one chock full of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid (note: Seattle’s public fishing pier is host to a multi-lingual party of midnight squidders this time of year that is not to be missed). You can find my shellfish stew recipe in Fat of the Land. Or try a simple New England-style Clam Chowder, of which I have a couple recipes, here and here. Steamed littleneck clams can be easily gathered and prepared in minutes. A splash of white with a few sprigs of parsley and couple smashed garlic cloves is all it takes, or you can add a bit more prep time for Clams with Herbed Wine Sauce. Don’t forget crusty bread for dipping.

The South Sound and Hood Canal are good options for digging littleneck clams and picking oysters, while razor clam digs on the sandy ocean beaches are a time-honored way to stock the larder. In Oregon, Tillamook and Netarts bays are popular with clam diggers. Check the state Fish & Wildlife web sites for information on beach openings and limits.

Greens

Some of our spring weeds reappear in fall with the cool weather. One of the better bets is wild watercress, which can be gathered in quantity and tastes so much better than its domesticated counterpart. Spice up your green salad with watercress, pair it with wild mushrooms in a stuffing, or make a soup or side dish with it.

Berries

We’re lucky to have a dozen varieties of huckleberry in Washington and Oregon. Our late ripening variety is the evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, and it’s often available right around Thanksgiving. Of all the huckleberries, it’s one of the easiest to pick, with sweet berries that can be pulled off the branches in bunches, so get your fill, though be warned: as with our fall mushrooms, this is not a good evergreen huckleberry year. Should you find some, there’s nothing better than a huckleberry pie or cobbler to put an exclamation mark on a wild Thanksgiving meal.

Wild Berry Sorbet

We finally got a light drizzle, and forecasters are calling for actual rain later this weekend. In two decades of living in Seattle I’ve never seen a fall like this. The mushroom season was basically a non-starter. Fungi began to appear right on schedule despite the dry conditions, especially lobsters and white chanterelles, but without a drop in September and the first third of October, most mushrooms stalled out and withered beneath the duff.

The weather, or lack of it, has been tough on the region’s commercial foragers. Normally golden chanterelles and porcini are the focus this time of year. Instead, the pickers have been extending the huckleberry harvest.

My own freezer is filled with bags of huckleberries, too, and blackberries. My daughter can’t get enough for smoothies, yogurt parfaits, panna cotta, coffee cake, and other treats. These are the go-to uses for berries in our family, in addition to my own favorite, cobbler. Looking for something new, I turned to Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong for inspiration. Wong is the house forager for New York’s Daniel restaurant, part of Daniel Boulud’s empire. With help from the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, she’s given the usual dirt-under-the-fingernails foraging book a more culinary twist. Arranged by season, Foraged Flavor is a catalogue of wild foods (with an East Coast emphasis) and recipes that have passed muster in Manhattan’s cutthroat dining scene.

“Although sometimes startling and sharp,” Wong writes in the introduction, “a wild taste is often more complex…with a symphony of flavors and notes. Similarly, wild plants look and act more like individuals, as they have not been airbrushed or altered to sit on a supermarket shelf like Hollywood stars.” Amen.

Most foraging books are identification guides that dwell on the finding rather than the cooking. Wong’s book takes a different approach with its focus on cuisine. True, the book comes with color plates in a DK style and helpful notes on habitat and key characteristics. But it is the scores of recipes, more than eighty in all, that will make this a dog-earred addition to the forager’s bookshelf.

The recipes are spare and simple, highlighting the arresting flavors of the foraged ingredient. There are several variations on salads (e.g., Cardamine Cress with Fennel and Orange Vinaigrette), dips (Garlic Mustard Eggplant Dip), and syrups (Pineapple Weed Syrup). Some of the recipes that have caught my eye, earning a bookmark for later: Curried Lamb and Lambsquarters Meatballs, Sweet and Sour Daikon Radish with Crushed Juniper Berries, and Candied Violet Flowers.

Say the authors on their recipe for Wild Berry Popsicles: “The rich and layered blend of berry tastes make this an out-of-the-ordinary treat.” If you’re lacking in popsicle moulds, make a sorbet instead, as I did with an equal mix of huckleberries and blackberries.

1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups wild mixed berries

1. In medium saucepan, bring to boil 2 cups water, sugar, and vanilla extract. Remove from heat.

2. In a blender, puree the berries and then add the sugar syrup. Blend together until smooth (about 2 minutes). Strain through fine mesh or cheesecloth. Spoon into moulds and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.

Manhattan may have a highly critical restaurant clientele, but this simple sorbet got the thumb’s up from the most exacting berry aficionado I know.