Image credit: Scott Loarie
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.
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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.
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Caw! Caw caw!
Hi bird. I’m stealing your food. Sucks to be you.
Caw caw caw caw
I’m pretty sure you weren’t gonna eat it anyway or it wouldn’t still be on the bush. And look, there’s a bunch over there I can’t get to. I’m bigger than you. Stop whining.
CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW
:: the crow divebombs me on my way to the next bush ::
CAW CAW CAW CAW caw caw CAW CAW CAW
Fuck! What the shit are you… oh, I see it now. Look, I’m not gonna eat your babies. I’m just eating these Indian plums. I’m still bigger than you.
CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW! CAW CAW!
Yeah yeah just let me pick a few more and I’ll
(Crow 2:) CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW
(More crows in the distance:) Caw! Caw caw caw!
… are you going to teach all of your friends to hate me forever? I wish I’d never seen The Birds. Don’t mess up my hair on my way out okay?
Will you make me a pie?
Sure! These are great pie cherries.
I didn’t even know these were edible!
They’re not all that good unless you sweeten them.
:: eats a cherry ::
Yeah, they’re ok.
Well helloooo, sailor!
Wild asparagus fronds don’t respond. Wild asparagus can’t talk.
You probably already know this, but those are Indian plums.
Yup! Have you ever eaten them?
Nope. This past week is the first time I’ve seen anyone picking them. They’re a neat bit of history.
:: Woman resumes what appears to be an exercise walk ::
What are you doing?
Offgassing some cyanide.
What are you going to do with it?
Eat it. Or maybe drink it, I dunno. After I strain the seeds and get rid of the cyanide so it doesn’t kill me. Does this smell like tomato juice to you?
I have a foraging shame: The plants I’ve been calling Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, or Polygonum japonica if you are an old-school genus-lumper like the King County noxious weed people) are probably actually Bohemian knotweed (Whatever x bohemicum), a hybrid between Japanese and giant knotweed (Whatever sachalinensis) species. You can tell the difference by waiting for the plants to flower and then checking the length of the flower clusters relative to the leaves.
This bit of botany has zero (0) culinary ramifications. Giant knotweed is edible, Japanese knotweed is edible, their various hybrid offpsring are edible, and as far as I can tell from reading people’s knotweed recipes they all cook up about the same.
Anyway I dehydrated a load of bike trail knotweed (Whatever x/- whatever) in April and have been experimenting with it since. After the jump, my two failures and one success, plus some gratuitous science about resveratrol and a fancy cocktail gadget DIY’d out of trash.
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So the other night I was reading this cool open-access research paper on the ethnobotany of Belarus. As you might expect, (1) Belarusians in the 19th Century made a lot of things into soup! and (2) many of these older wild food traditions have died out, particularly when it comes to wild greens.
Anyway, one of the wild green culinary traditions that’s still thriving in modern Belarus is the use of Rumex species to make a sour soup. Rumex is a large genus, including various kinds of docks and sorrels. The paper didn’t mention which species in particular were most popular (other than the modern adoption of R. confertus, a non-native species) but did mention that the sourness came from the greens, as opposed to other traditional sour soups where the souring agent is a lactic acid fermentation. And the Internet quickly yielded a recipe and a name: Chaladnik. Then more names – apparently this soup is more commonly known as schav and it is a part of cuisines throughout Eastern Europe. Why was I not informed?
I ignored the more-bitter less-sour broad-leaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius) in my backyard in favor of the sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), and threw in some wood sorrel (Oxalis somethin or other) since it is soured by the same chemical. (Oxalic acid, by the way, will give you kidney stones if you eat too much of it. It’s present in moderate concentrations in many common foods like rhubarb, purslane, and spinach, all of which I adore, because oxalic acid is the most delicious kidney stones ever.)
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Scotch broom is a Class B noxious weed that grows in several convenient locations along the bike trail, so I was excited to learn that the flower buds are edible. Traditionally they are pickled and used like capers.
If I ever find myself in possession of more time than money, or in charge of a couple of children who need to be kept out of trouble, I will make these again. (I used this recipe and added a few mint leaves to the brine.) Otherwise, well. I picked broom buds for as long as I could stand it on two different afternoons. The first time, I barely got anything, because I was trying too early – there were only a couple of flowers in bloom per plant. The second time, when the bushes were about halfway covered in yellow, was more productive. There were plenty of buds on the branches, but it was still painstaking work to pick them – it took me maybe 45 minutes to gather enough for two bagels.
They were nice bagels! The pickled buds were pleasantly toothsome and tasted mostly of pickle-brine with an undertone of pea. They just weren’t quite a labor-intensive delicacy level of delicious. I might try this pickle idea again with some small peas, or possibly black locust flower buds, which are just starting to pop around here and grow on convenient racemes (if you can find a short enough tree).
I only learned how to identify cleavers (Galium aparine) this spring, after reading about it on some other foraging blogs.
Usually, when I learn a new plant it takes me a year or so of scouting around before I’m able to spot it from a distance and/or from my bike. Not so with cleavers! Three weeks after identifying the weird clingy thing in my weed patch I was seeing it everywhere.
I’m very sorry I didn’t learn it earlier, because cleavers is an A++ worthwhile plant. Not only is it easy to find, it is easy to harvest – grows in big swaths, far enough above the ground to stay clean, does not require any fiddly treatment post harvest – and delicious. With my first haul I made cleaver lemonade, which seems to be the standard treatment: Whiz the cleavers up in a blender and strain out the juice (or use a juicer, if you are so endowed), add the juice and zest from a couple of lemons, sweeten to taste. Drink 50/50 with club soda. Mine also had a bit of chickweed in it as they were growing together and I was too lazy to detangle them.
I took a growler of the stuff to a party over the weekend. Many people declined to try it – it’s a very lurid green and green planty-tasting juice is not everyone’s thing. Those who did try it, liked it; as one friend said, “It tastes like green plants only it also tastes good”.
Another friend offered to buy me brunch in exchange for the secret of my cleavers patch. Cleavers patches being only slightly more jealously guarded than Himalayan blackberry patches, I of course offered to just tell her, but she insisted on buying me brunch anyway and making a story out of how she got my secret. Sometimes the point of foraging is not to just have the delicious free food. Sometimes the point and the fun is having a good story to tell when you are serving the delicious free food to your friends. And there’s a marketing lesson for you!
Sometimes, when you go to make a cocktail there is nothing in the liquor cabinet but applejack, 4 bottles of whisky too good to mix with, and eleventy-billion liqueurs.
This was an acceptable cocktail, the celery bitters are a lovely complement to the cleavers, but it would’ve been better with gin.
I’ve been meaning to participate in Butter‘s Wild Things Roundup ever since I discovered her blog last fall, but the themes have never quite coincided with my cooking. Until now! This month’s theme is dandelions.
My big dandelion experiment for this year is the mead. But in honor of the roundup I thought I’d do a worth it / not worth it rundown of past results. The whole dandelion is edible and I’ve tried everything but the seeds. The emerging theme is that dandelions are great as part of a larger whole, but I’m not so into them as a stand-alone dish.
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I’m blogging about tonight’s mead-making because the #%@^*! must won’t cool down fast enough for me to pitch the yeast and go to bed. Someday I will learn not to start brewing after 8pm but that day is not today.
I’m following something like Jack Keller’s recipe #2. Except that when I say “following” I don’t really mean it – for one thing, when I stopped by the homebrew shop they had some enticing jars of local honey on the counter and oh, hey there impulse purchase, it’s nice to see you in my bag! So I’m making a mead. 2 quarts dandelion petals, 3 lbs fireweed honey, zest and juice from 3 oranges + 1 lemon. Smack pack of dry mead yeast + nutrients. Continue Reading »