Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Adventures in Foraging: Red Elderberries

I've been really interested in learning more about our local plants and their uses, especially to better prepare myself for my upcoming permaculture design course (which is only about 3 weeks away at this point!)  About a month ago, Joe and I found a fun new trail, the Lime Kiln Trail, only about 45 minutes away from us in Granite Falls.  We had a great time honing our plant identification skills that day, and much to our delight, we realized that a huge number of the plants along this easy, variable, and scenic path are edible!  Or at least not poisonous.  We had a great old time snacking on salmonberries and picking out other plants that would be offering up other edibles later in the season.

One thing we noticed a lot of were elderberry trees.  Now, elderberries come in three varieties in our area: blue, black, and red.  Blue elderberries are edible raw and apparently tasty in wines, preserves, etc.  From what I can tell, black elderberries are the most commonly used variety as a medicinal in syrups, teas, and tinctures, but they need to be processed before use, and I'll want to do more research before using them for anything.  Note: leaves, bark, roots, and wood of all elderberries are poisonous.

This past weekend, the third type, the red elderberries, were in full production.  Check out the gorgeous bunches of berries here!  Can you not see why we were tempted to gather them all to ourselves?  The bright contrast of red against green convinced me there was no way that these things couldn't be delicious.

Our berry book says about red elderberries that "once cooked, they can be made into a variety of preserves," which led me to believe that it was a pretty normal thing to do.  However, after we got home, a quick google search resulted in almost no results!  I guess we're kind of on the fringes here.

One resource that I've found really fun to explore is Wild Harvest, a really informative blog written by a local ethnobotanist.  Luckily for me, they've already done a bit of experimenting with red elderberries.  Apparently local native tribes did eat them, but not as a first choice.  They'd stew them for an extended period, remove the numerous tiny seeds because they contain hydrocyanic acid (!!!), and mix them with other, better-tasting berries before making them into cakes to store for the winter.

The people at Wild Harvest decided to go the traditional route and make fruit leather from their puree after adding sugar.  However, since the berries smell a bit like tomatoes with a strong, slightly "off" aftertaste (Wild Harvest diplomatically calls it "pungent"), we decided to improvise with an idea suggested by a commenter on that page: using red elderberries as a tomato substitute in marinara sauce!

As a result of the tomato debacle of  '13, I've learned that tomatoes are just not a crop that grows without a lot of effort and care west of the Cascades.  I would really welcome a local, easily cultivated or foraged crop to fill the Italian food vacuum we've been suffering through.  Sadly, I don't know if elderberries are the solution I was hoping they'd be.  They were kind of a pain with all the picking apart, boiling, mashing, and straining, and in the end the aftertaste, although greatly diminished, still takes away a bit from the final meal.  Ah, well, we still had a great time learning and improvising.

Red Elderberry Marinara Sauce

3-4 cups of red elderberries, or however many you have
Olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, pressed
1 little jar or can of tomato paste
Concentrated vegetable stock or bouillon cubes
Italian spices: parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, savory, red pepper flakes, paprika
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup quality parmesan cheese, grated
Cooked pasta

1. Prepare elderberries.  Remove all berries from their stems and get rid of unripe or damaged berries.  Place in a pot with several cups of water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and let them simmer for several hours.

Pretty berries
2.  Using an immersion blender, manual eggbeater, or possibly an electric mixer, reduce the elderberries to as fine of a pulp as you can without mashing up any of the seeds.  Strain the mixture through a fine metal strainer and get as much liquid out of it as you can.  You'll probably have to mix it around in the strainer and squish it a bit to get the last bits out.  Set aside the strained mixture and dispose of the seeds.

No longer as pretty
The immersion blender worked best
3.  Saute the onion in the olive oil until translucent, add garlic and cook a minute or two, then add in spices, stirring for another minute.  Then add in the jar of tomato paste and the elderberry puree.

4.  Add in 1-2 tsp concentrated vegetable stock, to taste.  At this point, you should adjust the spices to your preferences as well.  Go heavy on the parsley, basil, and marjoram- I think their softer flavors helped most to temper the "off" taste of the berries, along with the vegetable stock and parmesan.

5.  After the flavor is mostly right, stir in grated parmesan.  Parmesan is wonderful and hides any number of sins.

6.   Spoon sauce over freshly boiled pasta, top with more parmesan and fresh parsley and basil if you have it, and voila!  Serve with garlic bread and a fresh side salad.

1 comment:

  1. This was fun to read and learn about -- HOWEVER, it looked like way to much work for me! Thanks for the update. Karen