Berries Gone Wild

The blackberry bushes are ever upon us, their profligate vines grasping our legs, snagging our clothing, encroaching on what’s left of our backyards. They bramble their way into any unclaimed – or claimed – space, fairly knocking down other plants, so rapid is their growth. The canes thrash about in the air a bit then actually plunge into ground to take root, creating a bulbous tuber that you can’t remove without a pick-axe, blood, tears, and your lifetime quota of profanity. The vines can grow at a rate of 20 feet every year. Yes, that’s right. But for a brief moment in that year of unchecked advance, they offer us berries. They are a member of the rose family, so they will mercilessly cut you as you harvest; but nevertheless, we are grateful. It’s Stockholm syndrome, but we want pie.

 

Blackberries show up right as summer is poised to fade, (even earlier this year, since it’s been about 145 degrees) so unlike the promising salmonberries of June, these fruits always make me feel a bit wistful and desperate. But it doesn’t take much to inspire that feeling in me – it’s my superpower.

Hopeful early summer salmonberries

I corralled the daughters into picking with me, using my standard rallying cry: “Three people for ten minutes equals a pie!” It was one of our don’t-tell-me-there-isn’t-major-climate-disruption sizzling hot days, so morale was waning before we even began. But we got our haul, despite #2’s desultory harvesting.

“Come on honey,” I enthused perkily, acting against type, “Let’s abolish the stereotype of lazy child berry pickers!”

“That stereotype exists because of me!” she said. Okay, that’s pretty good. She can’t pick berries worth a darn, but she’s funny. Humor could stand her in better stead than competent foraging, unless there’s an apocalypse.

I am starting to think you can make a topping for berry crisp out of anything. I am confident I could bash one together with twigs. I have never made the same one twice. This time I dumped 1 1/2 cups of cashews in the Cuisinart with roughly 3/4 of a cup of oats and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. I whirred that around, adding a couple pinches of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla (almost the last of my precious, real vanilla!) and 3 tablespoons of butter. This formed a crumble to cover the berries, which I mixed with honey and a pinch of salt. We like a tart crisp around here, since we are given to eating it for breakfast, but you can add more sugar/honey/maple syrup to suit your own household of not-great berry pickers.

This crisp was scrumptious, and everyone descended on it with much more vigor than they had for the actual berry acquisition. I reproduced it the next day, and it wasn’t quite the same, but such is the uncertainty of life – mine, anyway. Whatever summer offers you, I suggest you go out and grab it now. Even if I live a very long time, I have passed the midpoint of all the summers I will see. I find this so unbelievable and sad – yet what can I do? Brave the thorns, pick the berries, bake the crisp, eat it with gratitude, forgive myself for past failures in the kitchen and countless other rooms, and start again –  as long as the season lasts. If I am lucky, (I accidentally typed “plucky” first, and that’s applicable too) I will machete my way through a few more bramble patches, and desserts,  before I am done.

marycake

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Buried in Berries

The other day, my daughter and I sallied forth to cull the last of the waning season’s blackberries. We stopped first at the rare indigenous blackberry patch of legend (RIBPoL). Notice the leaves – these are not the willful brambles that have colonized your yard and viciously slashed your feet. These are the peaceful natives, or what remains of them. And they are delicious – like jam flavored wine, or wine flavored jam. They manage to evoke the pleasures of both: the fruity comfort of jam on buttered toast, and the relaxing and mood enhancing properties of a good glass of wine.While picking in the unpleasantly hot sun, I thought, how have I not written about berries this summer when I live in berryland and I think and talk about berries all the time? It may be that from late May to September they are so abundant here, it’s like writing about blinking. It’s just life, you know?

But oh, what a lovely life. The salmonberries were brief and sparse this year, and in all my years of dining on them, I have never managed to get one out of the woods and on to a plate. They are best eaten trailside. The same goes for thimbleberries, which disintegrate into a lipstick red mush, once picked. Strawberries were delicious, but that’s a post unto itself.One day in July I walked in the woods and encountered this particularly populated bush of Red Huckleberries. On that same walk I tasted four other kinds of wild berries, one of which I had never seen before, but don’t worry, since I am obviously still here. My husband has always been alarmed by my gleeful foraging behavior, and even after his two decades of life in the northwest, acts like everything in the woods is deadly poison. I am starting to think that’s just his shtick.

This is an underripe blackcap, a berry I have not seen since my childhood rambles in the woods. I just learned that this seldom seen delight is the same as the black raspberry. I assume, like everything except morning glory and dandelions, they have been choked out by the invasive (or, as they prefer to be called, “Himalayan”) blackberries.

And if anyone knows what these are, please contact me in the comments section below. They were longer and slimmer than the other blackberries and the leaves were unique. I can attest that they are edible, if a bit tart. I saw a faint, but unmistakable, hologram of the Virgin Mary that persisted for 2 hours after I partook of these dainties, but once I wandered out of the woods, it disappeared. So I don’t think that’s a problem.
There are few sights more wholesome and welcoming to me than a bowl like this in the morning. Berries atop waffles, dutch babies, yogurt or peanut buttered toast make me feel like all the rain was worth it. And then there’s the baking…
My clever friend Kirstin picked the berries for this pie during the eclipse, so they are infused with the changing light, the awed cries of millions of observers, and the humbling sense of our own minuscule presence in the cosmos. So yours probably won’t taste like this did, but don’t despair. The pie my daughter and I made from the RIBPoL, picked during no notable astronomical event, was fantastic. I followed Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe for open faced blueberry pie (works for blackberries!) that I linked to in “Why Pie?”

Now crisps are the go-to dessert of the season, and best served with vanilla enhanced whipped cream. I made this one for an outdoor party I catered, and served it next to a backyard duck pond. Crisps are quick and easy and you can use a variety of flours, nuts, oats, maple syrup or your choice of sugar. I also used this recipe for a desserts class I taught at the Bayview School of Cooking. There were no ducks, but it was still good.

Any Berry Crisp

Ingredients for crumble

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour (I have subbed almond meal here and it’s delicious, if not cohesive)
2 tablespoons flax meal
1/2 cup rolled oats
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted

Ingredients for filling

1 tablespoon cornstarch (you can also use instant tapioca pudding)
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ cup raspberries
1 ½ cup blueberries or blackberries
1 ½ cup cherries (frozen is fine)
¼ cup dried currants (optional)
1/4 cup Beaujolais wine or similar type

Instructions

Preheat oven to 375. Butter an 8 inch baking dish.

To make the crumble, mix together the flour, flax meal, oats, sugar and salt in a bowl. Use a fork to stir in the melted butter. Divide the mixture into three portions and use your hands to form three patties, place the patties in the bowl and freeze for at least ten minutes, or until you’re ready to bake.

Make the filling by whisking together the cornstarch and sugar in a larger bowl. Add the raspberries, blue or blackberries, cherries and currants and toss until evenly coated. Wait three minutes, add the wine and toss again.

Transfer the filling to the prepared baking dish. Remove the topping from the freezer and crumble it over the filling, trying for big and small pieces.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the topping is deeply golden and the fruit juices are bubbling. Let cool a little before serving.

This recipe is, with slighdt adaption, is based on Heidi Swanson’s Tutti-Frutti Crumble in Super Natural Everyday.