Osoberry Ossobucco

stewed lamb and beans topped with chopped fennel and lemon zest

This was my first summer seriously harvesting Indian plums* (aka osoberries aka Oemleria cerasiformis). When I’d nibbled ripe ones on the trail before, I’d found them bitter, in much the same way Oregon grape is bitter, so my plan was to try making them into jam, to satisfy my strong-tasting jam PBJ cravings while I wait to replenish my stock of Oregon grape jam.

Indian plum, like Oregon grape, is a native shrub much beloved of native plant do-gooder** landscapers. So while there aren’t many fruits on any given shrub, there are a lot of shrubs. Unlike Oregon grape it is one of the first fruits to ripen in summer – I was actually a bit late picking them. Everywhere but the north-facing slopes and deeply shaded understories, the remaining osoberries had gone all wrinkly, and they spilled brown juice down my fingers whenever I touched them.

What a difference a late harvest makes. The overripe Indian plums had lost their tartness and concentrated their sugars into a curranty, raisiny deep sweetness. Still a bit of bitterness, just enough to give it depth. I started slurping at my hands.

I took home a big peanut butter tub full of fruits. Then I got to feeling fancy and spilled a little too much black pepper extract into my jam.

Whoops. Too peppery for jam… but all was not lost, it made a fantastic lamb stew.

Cooking with Indian plums

Indian plums are small fruits with a large pit. The best way to de-seed them is with a food mill – and when you’ve got a lot of seeds and peels to toss, I find that an old-fashioned foley mill actually works better than the KitchenAid attachment. Buying one of those things at a yard sale was one of the best dollars I’ve ever spent.

Indian plums also have a lot of pectin – the output from my food mill congealed in the prep bowl while I was doing other things in the kitchen, not quite to jam consistency but definitely a respectably thick sauce. I’m pretty sure you could cook it down into jam the old-fashioned way with no added pectin.

Very ripe Indian plums are low acid. Some of the anthocyanins in them are actually pH indicators, so if you add lemon juice to make your sauce safe for water-bath canning, you’ll see it turn from dark brown to dark purple.

Osoberry Ossobucco

  • Lamb shanks and/or lamb neck (I used some of each), or any other tough cut from a strong-tasting mammal, with a lot of nice marrow-y bones
  • White beans
  • Onions
  • Osoberry sauce with way too much black pepper
  • Red wine
  • Stock (my current batch of scrap stock was mostly chicken)
  • Juniper berries
  • Garlic
  • Thyme, oregano, fennel seeds, sage, salt, etc. to taste

Brown the meat on medium-high heat on the stovetop, then sautee the onions in the meat drippings. Turn your oven to 325. Put onions, meat, beans, a cup or so of red wine, a cup or two of osoberry sauce, some stock, and spices to taste in a dutch oven or oven-safe casserole dish, or now that I think about it this would probably be great in a crockpot. Braise/stew until the meat is falling off the bone and you’re hungry.

Traditionally ossobucco is served with risotto, but even though it was cool enough to run the oven today, there are still limits to the amount of time I will spend actually standing over the stove in the summer. I canned the remaining pint of Indian plum sauce, so maybe on winter solstice I’ll make this again, using the porcini that I found on my way home from summer solstice foraging to make an accompanying risotto. I’m never as excited about greeting the dark as I am about welcoming the return of light in winter, but the coming harvest season is also a time to stock the pantry for the coming dark, and I can usually muster up some enthusiasm for a well-stocked pantry.

[*] As a PC sort of person I used to try to avoid common names of the form “Indian $foo”. Then I spent some time as a field interviewer with the largest ever survey in Indian country (warning: link is to a long-ass PDF report, but if you make it to page 243 you can see which wild plant foods are most popular on the Colville reservation) and I learned to stop worrying. Yes, to the extent that these names perpetuate a habit of using “Indian” as a synonym for “wild” they are problematic, noble savage stereotype etc etc. But if these plant names were commonly experienced as a disagreeable reminder of oppression, I would’ve expected to meet at least one person during the study who was actually bothered by them. Instead I met people who told me how they eat Indian carrot and they’ve never heard of yampah. So I guess pragmatism in communication wins out over careful attention to cultural subtext.

As communication goes, though, this form of common name is perhaps more prone to species confusion than a lot of other common names – many unrelated plants can be used in a similar way and they all get called “Indian potato”. I still have about a pot’s worth of “Indian tea” given to me during the survey by a woman who didn’t know it by any other name; I despair of ever identifying it.

Anyway, whichever of the common names you prefer, for the love of god do not call this plant a “Native American plum”. It completely misses the point about why the word “Indian” might be offensive in this context and will get you chuckled at back in the environmental resource survey office. True fact.

[**] When the Friends of the Burke Gilman Trail ripped up my favorite nettle patch I started shaking my fist and twirling my imaginary mustache at their signs (as a joke, natch, because even when it inconveniences me I do support their mission. But life doesn’t hand us enough excuses to talk like a cartoon villain). But when I was out harvesting Indian plums I ran across some of the first fruits from the trailing blackberries those undastardly forest fabricators had villeinously vinicultured, and… well. Comparing the trailing blackberry to its cultivated relatives is a bit like comparing a roast pheasant to a chicken mcnugget.

The native plant do-gooders have planted an awful lot of trailing blackberry. I will never twirl my mustache at them again.


  1. Catherine wrote:

    Hi, this is all really interesting, and thanks for the osoberry/Indian plum osobucco recipe!

    I like Oregon grapes when they’re ripe, and have made grape jelly from them. Nice to hear about this variation with pepper and Indian plums.

    Fun and informative nattering, thanks.

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