Berry Season

Summer’s heat is upon us, with temperatures climbing towards the 90’s, and with the heat comes the season of the berry. Blueberries and black raspberries are the first out of the gate in early July, changing almost overnight from pale green and rose to deep blue and black, respectively.

Wild black raspberries are one of my favorite summer treats. Of all the things I forage for in the wild, these luscious gems are a truly one of my favorites. Sweet yet tart, they are best eaten right away, or as soon as you can get them home and into a bowl of cream. They are very delicate and don’t hold up well to storage, unless you plan to freeze them. If you intend to make anything other than jam with the frozen ones, it’s best to freeze them in a single layer on a sheet. Otherwise they will end up as juice in a bag.

Picking black raspberries is no picnic, as they say, and this is one treat you have to work for. They mostly grow along hedgerows and by the sides of dirt roads, and are often laced with stinging nettle and Multi-flora rose brambles, neither of which feels good on bare skin. They like shade and the first ones to ripen are often under other plants. Plan your berry picking foray to include boots and long pants, as well as a wide brimmed hat to protect against the ever present gnats. A long sleeved shirt and some bug repellent go a long way toward making it a pleasant experience. Berries ripen over time, so if you want any quantity for jam or jelly, plan on picking every two days while they are in season.

Picking fresh blueberries is somewhat easier, especially if you have a well tended patch, as we do. I was just in the nick of time in getting mine covered against the birds this summer, as the day after I put up the netting they began to turn blue. Experience has taught me that the berries I deem to be “almost ripe” are perfectly edible to the host of birds hovering just over my shoulder waiting for me to leave. We have lost entire crops of the succulent morsels by waiting one too many days to put up the nets. The protective tent only helps so much though; almost every day I shoo out a hungry fellow that has managed to find a hole or sneak under.

Blueberries are very easy to maintain. They don’t require spraying and are not bothered by pests. They need little pruning and seem to winter well. We have not had any problems with the deer eating them. Harvest seems to depend more on the weather than any other factor and this year they are ripening early. Ours have grown slowly over time, but are abundant producers and we average about 5 gallons a year from 10 bushes. Pie, and more pie, is our first choice for stored berries, especially in the winter months. They freeze well, but I can’t tell you how long they keep because they don’t last long!

Berries are one of natures super-foods, and wild berries even more so. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, they not only taste delicious but are really good for you. Everyone should save a spot in their garden for a blueberry bush or two, and if you don’t have a garden, try growing them in pots. It’s well worth the effort, for your taste buds as well as your health.

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Cattails. Yum!

I wonder how many people have said or thought that in the last 50 or 100 years.  Not many, I’d bet, but perhaps I’m wrong.  I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and find that it’s more than I think.  I know there is a semi-secretive but emerging group of wild food specialists out there, but I thought they stayed mostly to mushrooms. 

Speaking of pleasantly surprised, I was after my recent cattail adventure. 

Our pond is overrun with cattails, and up to a few days ago I looked on them with disapproval mingled with despair.  Our pond wants to be a swamp again, and the cattails are the first determined step it is taking to revert to its natural state.  In the past we have used a backhoe to dig them out when they got to be too abundant, and on occasion my husband will don full waders and attack them with hoe and shovel, but it seems to be a futile attempt: they continue to populate at an alarming rate.  Well, yesterday I got my revenge.  I went out to the pond, sharp knife in hand, and cut all the new shoots just emerging from the shallows.  I peeled off the outer green stalk, took them home and ATE THEM!  HAHAHAHA!Image

The surprising thing was that they were actually good.  Really.  Good. 

Cattails can be great fun, especially for kids.  Bashing each other with the cigar-like heads and creating a haze of cattail spores is a treasured summer pastime for those with ponds nearby.  The heads can also be used as impromptu torches.  They smoke wildly and make a terrific mess, but it’s still fun.  Then recently I was killing time reading a book called Foraging New England by Tom Seymour and learned that cattails are edible.  I thought I’d give it a try. 

Eating something entirely new can be a daunting experience.  For a few minutes after I ate them, I thought I might get a stomach ache.  Not because I felt funny, but because they were so entirely different.  If someone had served them to me on china and called them something fancy, I might have relished them right off the bat, but plucking them out of the mud and scraping off the tough outer layer, then slicing them on a salad, made me a bit skeptical of their authenticity as food.  I tried to remember the first time I had had endives, or leeks, as they have a similar flavor, but I couldn’t come up with anything.  Then I remembered trying fiddlehead ferns for the first time.  Earthy, delicate and entirely delicious, fiddleheads are one of those strange spring delights that my children anticipate, harvest, cook and serve to us each year.  Finally, after not getting sick, and realizing they tasted pretty good,  I decided that they might have a place in my repertoire of “wild things I eat.”

First I tried them raw.  As I had been thinking about endive, I started there, and made a salad with celery, Bibb lettuce, endive, and sliced cattails.  For protein I added some chopped grilled salmon and some bacon, and topped it with a crumble of chevre and pine nits.  It was entirely delicious.Image

Then I decided to try them cooked.  Everything (in my opinion)  goes with eggs, so I decided on an onion and cattail scramble, served with salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce.  (My favorite is homemade, but Cholula is a good store-bought second).  That was a success. The cattails held up well, and didn’t get mushy as I feared.  Next time I’ll try sautéed fennel and cattails with garlic cream sauce as a side.  I even served them to a young friend of my son in a salad and he gobbled them up, not even noticing they were there. Image

 

If you have any nutrition information for cattails, or any tried and true recipes, I would love to hear about them!