Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mulberries and The Kindness of Strangers

Food foraging can be nerve wracking.  Soon after picking, doubt begins to set in.  Is it really edible?  Am I really, truly, sure that this plant/berry/mushroom is the right species and not an evil, poisonous doppelganger?
On the other hand, food foraging to feels exhilarating.  It’s the culinary equivalent of dumpster diving. Getting luscious berries like this for free isn't a bad deal at all.

When foraging for mulberries, I have no worries about getting the genuine thing.  I've been picking wild mulberries for as long as I can remember.  In fact, even before my little sister was born, I remember family foraging trips, down dusty dirt roads to find the best road-ditch mulberry trees in the county.  When I was 5, I thought it was quite spectacular to watch mulberry picking.  Mulberry picking is best accomplished by laying out a large sheet under the tree and shaking the branches until it rains mulberries.  Quite an exciting affair, especially compared to buying a can of pie filling at the grocery store.

My mulberry picking adventure this year was still exciting.  I've been scoping out the trees in my neighborhood for the past few weeks.  Waiting for ripeness.  I finally found the perfect picking tree two blocks from my house: a large specimen with low hanging boughs.  The only problem was that it is very much on private property.  I decided to Blanche DuBois it and "rely on the kindness of strangers." I knocked on the tree owner's door and asked if I could pick mulberries.  The gentlemen that answered the door said yes.  (Sometimes loving an unappreciated fruit can have its benefits. I don't think I'd have been nearly as lucky had I tried the same thing with a backyard cache of raspberries.)  Though mulberries are under appreciated, I find that I like them precisely because of how common, how pedestrian they are.  Here is a delicious berry that nearly goes unnoticed.  I also admire that fact that they seem to thrive in countryside road ditches as well as they do in my urban neck of the woods. 
Mulberries make a lovely pie filling.  In fact, that's the only use my mother ever had for the berry after my dad had shimmied and shaked the tree free of all its fruit.  She was on to something. Mulberries are best cooked to draw out the most flavor.  Mulberries are like blackberry’s shy, younger sibling. They're much more dainty in flavor, and delicate in physique.  Mulberries are juicy like blackberries, but they have the earthy humility of a blueberry, but without the tartness. They aren’t as tart as blackberries, either, and they aren’t nearly as aggressive with their seeds—which is particularly appealing.

For the pie, I made a butter crust this time because I didn't want to buy lard.  I used Michael Ruhlman's 3-2-1 Pie Crust from his book Ratio.  At first I was nervous that I had added too much water because the dough was a bit sticky when rolling out—so I used a lot of flour—and had to roll out each piece of dough twice because the first time it stuck to the table.  Even so, the crust was not overworked.  It was impeccably tender. More tender than any lard crust I had ever made before.  I loved how the butter flavor complimented the berry filling.  Although I love a lard pie crust for robust and spicy apple pie, that would have overwhelmed the flavors here.

I also made a batch of jam.  Another life lesson taught by cooking: everything gets easier with practice. Putting up a batch of mulberry jam took less than an hour today.The jam is brilliant—dark and shinny—mostly purple, with deep garnet undertones. I added cinnamon and just a pinch of ground clove to the jam.  While the cinnamon is less detectable than the clove, the two spices would fall under the realm of secret ingredients because without knowing they're in there, you just can't quite put your finger on what the flavor is.  But the spices round out the flavors, bringing the floral notes of the mulberry forward. The jam has commercial powdered pectin in it, which is easy to work with.  I simply followed the package directions, no recipe needed.  The pectin, which naturally occurs in many fruits, especially unripe fruits, works to thicken the jam.  Using powered pectin means that the jam doesn't have to cook for hours, just a couple of minutes on a good rolling boil.

All in all, a gratifying day.  Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I was able to make these mulberry treats.


Karen Babine said...

Tragedy! I'm not close enough to trade something for some of your jam--it sounds delicious! Maybe when I have a kitchen I can turn around in, I might experiment with making pies. My grandmother is locally famous for hers.

Cindy Salo said...

I thought of this post when I saw mulberries for sale at the Boise Farmers Market yesterday. When I marveled over them, the seller said that Guy Hand had done a radio bit on their mulberries recently.
And yes, I've already invited Guy Hand to speak to Boise Nonfiction Writers!