Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wild Berries: Not-so-Slim Pickin's

Freshly picked salmonberries and blueberries.

Last weekend, while trying to figure out where to go berry picking, my friend Tess had the brilliant idea of kayaking out to one of the islands with our berry pails. As we were gliding along, berry pails in tow, sun shimmering on the water, glacier glowing in front of the Mendenhall Towers, I had a moment—a Juneau moment, where life here feels almost surreal—and it was all I could do not to burst into Julie Andrews-style song.

Here's Tess paddling on Fritz Cove with the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance.

We've had an uncommonly good summer here, and the berries are popping. Berry picking one of those Zen activities that you just lose yourself in. When I start picking I can feel the eons of hardwired gathering instincts all come to peace within me. You simply can't compare those energy-sucking shopping trips to the satisfaction of gathering your own food.

Tess and I found so much food in the forest that day. Check out this Chicken of the Woods mushroom!

It had a blueberry stalk growing right up through the middle. So much abundance! We harvested some, but before cooking it up I did my research (like a good little wild crafter) and found that Chicken of the Woods, although easily identifiable, should not be eaten if it’s growing on a conifer tree. Since our forests here are made up primarily of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock trees, I was pretty sure that was the case for this stunning mushroom. Oh well. The moral of the story is to use caution when foraging. There is a LOT to learn and you’re better off safe than sorry.

When it comes to wild berries, the surly forager in me wants to be alright with the little worms common to Juneau berries, but alas, the culinarian in me is not. Maybe I’m berrynoid, but the first thing I do when I get my berries home is give them a 1-hour soak in cool, well-salted water (about 1 tablespoon per pint) to draw out any worms.

Here’s some more Berry Tips:
• Tess and I found that berries picked in open meadows were less wormy than berries picked under forest canopy.
• Bears love berries too. If you live in bear country, pick with a friend, make noise, sing, wear bells, carry bear spray, and stay alert. Bears have right-of-way in berry patches. If you see one, calmly vacate the area (don't run!).
• Freeze berries on baking sheets in a single, spread-out layer, before packing them into a sealed bag or container. That way you'll have individually separated berries that are easier to portion out when you're ready to use them.
• Don’t take all the berries from the bush. Leave about 2/3 for the birds, bears, and other critters that depend on them.
• Don't eat poison berries by mistake! Do your research. Get a thorough and reliable reference book on wild berry picking, and use it. You should be 100% sure a berry (or any wild food) is edible before putting it in your mouth.

Tess used her berry booty for a mean berry rhubarb crisp, with a coconut crust (brilliant!). The orange berries on the plate are cloud berries that she picked in the muskeg.

Here’s her recipe if you want to try it out. Thanks for sharing Tess!

Tess’s Jewel Berry Crisp

3 cups of wildberries (salmon berries, cloudberries, blueberries)
1 cup of rhubarb, diced
3 tablespoons of all purpose flour
3 tablespoons of granulated sugar


½ cup rolled oats
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 generous tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup shredded coconut
½ cup packed brown sugar

Gently mix the berries, rhubarb, flour, and sugar until evenly coated. Lick spoon.
Scoop the mix into a brownie pan and top with crisp. Lick bowl.

For the topping, mix all dry ingredients and cut in butter with a pastry mixer until it becomes pea-sized crumbs. Sample a pinch to see if you need more pumpkin pie spice.
Sprinkle the topping over the berries. Ideally you want an even ratio of berries to topping. That’s the best part, after all!

Bake until golden brown and slightly firm.

Enjoy with coffee, or a nice dessert wine.

*Adapted from a fruit crisp recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book, 12th edition.

Click here to see my recipes for Wild Berry Basil Panna Cotta and Wild Berry Muscat Granita in the Juneau Empire. Here's what they look like (Granita in foreground) :

Thanks for stopping by Food-G, and happy foraging!

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