Red Elderberry Juice
Nancy Turner summarizes the general PNW native opinion of red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa, not to be confused with the much more delicious black and blue elderberries) as follows: “Red Elderberries were not generally regarded highly as food, and were frequently mixed with other types of berries to make them more palatable. But some people really enjoy them.” Hank Shaw deems them “at best nasty”.
Taking these sorts of statement as a challenge is one of my fundamental character flaws – the same flaw that drives me to bypass perfectly adequate chain restaurants by the side of the highway in favor of a greasy shack that is not going to be the home of the world’s best-kept secret amazing hamburger. (Unless you think the best-kept secret amazing hamburger is delivered to ramshackle dives across the country by a Sysco truck and served while it’s still a little bit frozen in the middle.) Still, I keep thinking that maybe this time it will be different. Maybe I will be part of the tiny minority of persons who really enjoy red elderberries!
So I picked some berries, laboriously de-stemmed them (the stems are poisonous), ran them through a food mill, boiled the juice for half an hour to denature the cyanogenic glycosides, and then strained the juice through my hops bag to remove all the seeds the food mill didn’t catch (the seeds are poisonous). The juice tasted pretty gross by itself, so I left it in the fridge for a week before I finally screwed up the courage to try some different ways of making it palatable.
The Mr. wrinkled up his nose and insisted that it had “that nasty vegetable flavor”, but he is very silly, because it is obviously a completely different nasty vegetable flavor than the one that’s been plaguing me in my vodka infusions – I could taste some bitterness but it wasn’t sulfurous.
So I guess if you use the phrase “really enjoy” to mean “tolerate if mixed with a lot of sugar and a little salt” then I am in fact one of the tiny minority of persons who really enjoys red elderberries! I think the flavor is something like tomatoes combined with cranberries combined with orange juice that’s gone a bit off.
Red Elderberries: Probably Only a Little Bit Poisonous
So, there are conflicting reports on the internet about whether red elderberry fruit is toxic, and if so, how toxic. It’s amply clear that there are dangerous levels of cyanogenic glycosides in the stems, leaves, and roots of most elderberry species, but I wasn’t able to find anyone reporting actual cyanogenic compound concentrations in red elderberry pulp. This is one of those things where the poison is in the dose, and the dose is determined by both the starting levels in the plant, and the amount that you reduce those levels through various preparation and storage methods – cyanogenic glycosides are destroyed by both heat and time.
The ethnobotanical record is pretty clear on both this berry’s tummyache potential and its ultimate edibility. Red elderberries have been an important food source in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years; the spat-out, undecayably toxic seeds are a common feature of archaeological digs. The berries are always eaten cooked – usually pit-cooked (a moist, gentle heat – you dig a pit and fill it with hot rocks, then food, then you add water before covering the whole assemblage up and letting it sit overnight) and then dried over a fire into cakes for storage. People who ate them were careful to spit out the seeds, and would rinse their mouths out with water in order to make sure they got all the seeds. Other precautions against getting sick included eating salmon afterwards and drinking extra water.
I didn’t eat any salmon, but I did have some hard-boiled eggs after figuring out my red elderberry salad, and I felt fine.
Kale Salad with Red Elderberry Juice
Red elderberries have a much higher fat content than most berries; if you let the juice sit in the fridge you will see a pale orange layer form on top. I didn’t do much taste testing to see whether it’s more delicious with or without the fat.
- Kale – 1 bunch
- Red elderberry juice (boil this for a good long time and be sure to strain out all the seeds) mixed with as much sugar as you can dissolve, and a pinch of salt – maybe 2-3 tablespoons
- A green onion
- This salad would probably have benefited from some raisins but I didn’t have any
Chop the kale and the green onion. Massage them with the red elderberry juice and let it all marinate for half an hour before eating.
- Robert J Losey, Nancy Stenholm, Patty Whereat-Phillips, and Helen Vallianatos (2003). Exploring the use of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit on the southern Northwest Coast of North America Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/S0305-4403(02)00242-X
- Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples (Royal BC Museum Handbooks)