We've been foraging in the woods for wild berries lately. A couple of days ago, we found salmon berries (in 2 colors), Indian plums, and lots and lots of red huckleberries. That green thing is a native beaked hazelnut. They are edible, and presumably very good, but nobody's ever eaten one in the history of the State because the squirrels just go crazy over them! I picked this one so the boys could see what the pod looked like.
Hazelnut and two different colors (both ripe) of salmon berry.
Salmon berries, despite their orange color, taste a lot like tart, loose blackberries. You won't find these in any store because when they're ripe they just fall apart in your hand. There's no transporting these babies! They are great for jams too, or just eating as fast as you can, snuffling like a foraging bear in the woods, like we do at this house. Pick them as you would a blackberry. It needs to practically fall off in your hand. If it gives any resistance at all, it's not ready.
Indian plums (the blueberry looking fruit in the first picture) have large seeds and taste not unlike a cucumber. It's an interesting taste experience and if you were starving, I suppose they'd do, but I can't say I'd put these on my every day list. But it's definitely worth a try just to say you had one. Only the female trees produce fruit (which doesn't have anything to do with anything, but us ladies gotta stick together...). Pick the fruit when it's pretty soft, and easy to pull off the tree, otherwise they're bitter and downright awful.
We're eagerly awaiting the native blackberries, thimble berries, and raspberries that are forming as we speak, to be followed at the end of Summer by the invasive, yet so terribly tasty Himalayan blackberries that spread like prickly, brambly wildfire here in the Pacific Northwest. If nothing untoward happens, it looks like we're in for a great haul of those bad boys this year.
We are fortunate that our property is dotted with a plethora of wild red huckleberry bushes. Red huckleberries are one of the very few wild red berries that are safe for human consumption. *DISCLAIMER!!* Do not eat wild berries (espeically red ones) if you don't know exactly what the are! *END DISCLAIMER!!* The boys love them because they're so pretty and easy to pick. No thorns, berries at kid level, tart, crisp little balls of yum that burst in your mouth. As a plant, they are one of my favorites, too. They are beautiful in the Winter with green stems that sport little pink buds as Spring arrives. Darling little mouse-ear leaves cover it for a while before pink berries about the size of a lentil arrive in the early Summer.
I debated for a while what to do with these little yummies. Raw, with a dollop of ice cream was a big contender for a while, but I figured since this is a cooking blog, I couldn't very well let these little guys go without being cooked. So I settled on jam. This is an old-fashioned jam recipe. No pectin needed. Just berries, sugar, and water. I burned the first batch. Beyond all reason and recognition. I was sad. But if it weren't for that, I wouldn't have gone berry picking this morning. Early dawn. Just me, the slugs, a few annoyed birds, and the bleary-eyed dog walkers (you know who you are) all joined together greeting the day in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
A little photo tutorial for those who've never made jam before.
Pick some berries. (Pay no attention to the ghostly pale arm floating in mid-air.)
Pull off any stems and clean out any leaves or dirt.
Admire your work. Preeeeeetty...
Wash the berries.
Weigh out your berries and your sugar.
Stir up berries and sugar. Doesn't it look like Christmas?
Then add water and turn on the heat.
Then add water and turn on the heat.
Bring it to a rolling boil. Keep an eye on it once it reaches this stage. It's liable to boil over on you at a moment's notice.
Skim off the scum. (PS, it's called scum because it doesn't look pretty in the jars, it's not dirty. You can totally eat it while you're waiting for your jam to cook if you want! Watch out, it's hot!)
Check for gel. Use a cold plate, place a dollop of jam onto it. If it forms a gel in a few seconds and not a soup, you've got jam, baby! (Take the rest of your jam off the heat while you're checking for gel. If it's ready, you don't want to burn it while the test sets up! It should take less than 30 seconds...)
And then, before you know it, you've got jam!
Easy-Peasy Red Huckleberry Jam
Equal parts berries and sugar
2 Tbs water for every 5 oz of berries
Boil the berries, sugar, and water until it reaches the gel stage, stirring very frequently. Be sure not to over-cook it which will cause scorching and make it taste like a mixture of popcorn and fruit as Mr. CotC kindly suggested while trying to soothe me as I was bemoaning the fate of my first batch... =) Oh, and then it'll turn into rock hard popcorn and fruit flavored candy, not exactly what you want to spread on your toast in the am...
I boiled mine for 20 minutes. Yours might cook faster or slower depending on how much you have. I had 5 oz of berries.
Sanitize your jam jar. I filled mine with boiling water, but you can also use your dishwasher or the old "boiling the jar in a pot of water" trick. If you plan to save your jam for a while instead of eating it right away (really though, why would you?) make sure your jam comes close to the top of the jar. It is safe to use a water bath canning method on jams. Boil the submerged jar in a covered pot with a rack on the bottom for 10 minutes. This is assuming you don't have a huge batch of jam. If you somehow manage to collect enough berries to make a huge batch, good for you!! You obviously managed to keep the bear snuffling to a minimum! For more information on water bath canning, visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension site here.
A little butter, a little jam... bliss...
The slight tang makes this jam a little like cranberry sauce. It's much sweeter, though. Maybe a little like ligonberry jam, if you've ever tried that. It's definitely worth the time you'll spend on it. Though, raw on ice cream is a really safe bet, too!