(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part I

ElderberriesA few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to Elderberries.  Oh, I knew what they were… but I had never harvested them, or prepared them for the freezer, or made them into jam, or baked them in a pie.  Now, in case you are reading this thinking, “Ooh, I’m going to do that, too,” let me just warn you:  Gathering and preparing elderberries ain’t for sissies!

Elderberries grow in places where the ground is wet.  Sometimes Very Wet.  We got wet gatherng elderberries.  Elderberries are a very dark purplish blue.  Our fingers got purple separating the berries from the stems.  Elderberries are little.  It takes a long time to clean enough of them for a pie.

I’ve experimented with a few recipes with mixed results.

First, my failures:  I tried an Elderberry Jam recipe I found on the Internet.  It involved cooking berries and sugar until it got to a particular temperature and then pouring into jelly jars, etc.  I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I just guessed.  Hahahaha…  I REALLY overcooked it.  If you can even get it out of the jar with a jackhammer, you may break your tooth trying to eat it.  I gave it to my friend.  He calls it Elderberry Crunch.  If I try jam again, I think I’ll add pectin instead of guessing the right temperature…

Another on-line recipe was for Elderberry Crunch Bread.  (Surprisingly, it did not call for overcooked “jam.”)  It was a very healthy recipe:  no sugar, whole grain flour, etc.  I’m sure it’s very good for me.  But it has no flavor.  I’m still baffled.  How can you put strong-flavored elderberries in a recipe and end up with something that has no flavor?  There’s another loaf of it in the freezer.  I can’t get motivated to thaw it out… 

My first Elderberry Pie was tasty, though my mom recommended a bit of lemon juice to bring out the flavor of the berries even more.  My second pie, this time with lemon juice (and I think slightly riper berries) was delicious.

Elderberry BlossomsApparently, you can also eat the blossoms in June or July.  Dip them in batter and fry them in oil, so says the Peterson guide to Edible Wild Plants.  Sounds like a lot less work.  I don’t know though… flowers turn into berries.  The berries are so incredibly delicious… I would hate to forego berries in favor of flowers.  Maybe next summer I’ll try just one cluster.

I titled this post “(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part I”.  There was no exchange of money for the berries.  A little gasoline was burned looking for bushes on back roads.  A lot of time was spent cleaning the berries… but what else was I going to do?  Watch TV?  Some people knit or crochet or embroider or sew.  I like to have something to do with my hands, too.  Since I love food way more than hand-knit socks (nothing personal, Suzzles or Nature Knitter!) using my hands to prepare food is satisfying to me.  I found cleaning the berries on the front porch to be rather meditative and relaxing.  Plus, there is great satisfaction in knowing where your food comes from.  It was worth the “price.”

Elderberry NotecardElderberries also make for great art!  I am making a series of notecards on the theme of “native berries.”  I turned the above image into this.

You should Google “elderberry.”  It’s a pretty interesting plant.  It has many reported health benefits.  It has been used for jams, jellies, wine, pies, and other recipes.  Berries can be frozen or dried for long term storage.  The wood has been used to make flutes and arrows.  Oh and there is so much more!

Part II – coming soon – Hickory Nuts!

11 thoughts on “(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part I

  1. No free food … that’s for sure. Putting up food of any kind is hard work but sure worth the effort! To stand back and see the result of your labours is soul satisfying. I agree, there is something to be said for knowing where your food comes from!

    You are putting your Photoshop to good use! I’m still a little boggled by it all.

  2. LOL, love your title to this and can’t say that I have ever tried elderberry anything! Sounds good though! Did you know that this plant is considered a toxic plant if people eat the berries directly from the plant? Too many and you could get sick! So, cooking them right is always important!

  3. Elderberry pie is a popular Mennonite dish around here and is available at our markets. I never have acquired enough of a taste for elderberries to go to the trouble of picking them. It was hard enough gathering wild grapes for jelly, and they are considerably larger!

  4. Hi Jenn,
    I loved this post…gave me some chuckles. I have some small elderberry bushes in my yard. My question is: how did you still find berries on the bush? In my yard, the birds eat them almost as fast as they ripen.

    Thanks for the tips on preparing and cooking them. I hope to find enough next summer to make some jelly.

    P.S. I would be interested in purchasing a set of your native berries notecards when you get some printed up.

  5. Technical point: Mon@rch raises an interesting aspect of S. canadensis, namely that the raw berries are toxic. Fortunately the raw berries, that contain hydrocyanic acid, are not that tasty (at least for me). Cooking destroys that acid, and the pulp is excellent for pies or jams. H.acid is also found in other plant parts such as fresh flowers and leaves and the bark may be considered poisonous.

  6. @tai – ooh that sounds delicious. Hmmm…
    @eileen – re: photoshop, thanks!
    @monarch (and cestoady) – you’re right. I should have mentioned that to everyone. I don’t think raw berries will kill you, but they aren’t tasty and are likely to move your bowels pretty quickly!
    @ruth – Yeah, I sometimes wonder about the amount of work… I think I may look for wild grapes next year… running out of steam this year!
    @ruthiej – I dunno… the birds are leaving them alone this year for some reason… I’ll put a package of notecards in the mail to you soon.
    @cestoady – thanks for the technical info on the acids, etc.

  7. I’ve had a more potent cordial like drink made from Elderberries back home (England. I think my brother-in-law probably has a recipe if you want to try

  8. I’m curious to hear about your hickory nuts. We shelled about a quart of shag-bark nuts and all were empty–so dried up that inside was paper-thin. The drought?

  9. Elderberries make excellent wine, and you can also make elderflower wine. (Of course, then you couldn’t make elderberry wine. Decisions, decisions…)

  10. @dryadart: let’s try that recipe next fall!
    @ nina: I’m still cracking nuts. Nearly picked up more today… but decided I had better just take care of the ones I’ve got!
    @Susan: you are the wine maker, my dear… but i’d be glad to help and learn! which would you prefer? flower or berry?

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