Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A New Flavor Treat

Do you recognize the plant in the photo? It is American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This plant is one of several growing in our garden. Having admired the beautyberry for years on account of its bright fall color display, we were delighted to discover that the berries are edible. They are easy to prepare, and, as I discovered just yesterday, easy to pick if you know how. If you want to experience a true American native flavor, you only need about a cup of berries.

Holding a suitable container in your non-dominant hand, be ready to catch berries as they fall from the branches. With your dominant hand, gently rub the berry clusters as you move along the branch, working toward the tip. Ripe berries should be easily dislodged and will fall into your container. This technique can be mastered with a few moments of practice.

Once you have a cup or so of berries, transfer them to a strainer and rinse thoroughly. Pick out any insects or bits of leaf or stem that have found their way into the harvest. Transfer the drained berries to a small saucepan and barely cover them with cold water. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the berries uncovered for 20-30 minutes. The exact timing is not critical.

Remove the berries from the heat and allow them to cool briefly. Using a potato masher, crush the berries in the saucepan until you have a loose slurry of liquid and plant matter. DO NOT use a blender or food processor for this step, or you will break open the tiny seeds and ruin the product. When the berries are well-crushed, strain out the juice using a fine strainer lined with a coffee filter. Dampen the filter with water before you add the crushed berries, to prevent it from absorbing a lot of the berry juice. Allow the berries to drain for one hour at room temperature.

My one cup of berries produced 1/3 cup of juice after this treatment.

Combine the juice with an equal amount of sugar and heat over low heat. When the sugar dissolves, you have beautyberry syrup that can be poured over ice cream or cake. You can also cook the mixture down to produce a glaze or candy. Adding lemon zest to the juice and sugar mixture brightens the flavor. The syrup is a pleasing red-purple color, not as bluish as the fresh berries.

If you have enough berries, you can produce a larger quantity of juice and turn it into jelly, using pectin. To do this, you will need a quart or two of berries, more than I can obtain from the plants in my garden.

The flavor of beautyberry syrup is difficult to describe. It is grape-like, for sure, but with a toasted undertone reminiscent of freshly harvested grain. It is definitely a flavor worth a few kitchen experiments. As a starting point, you could treat it like pomegranate syrup.

Beautyberry thrives in ordinary garden soil with average moisture, although it is naturally found along stream banks and in other damp locations. Established plants need no special care, and will grow well with half a day of sun or more. They need not be fertilized and can either be left unpruned or pruned back in spring to a foot or so in height. Pruning results in a plant about half the normal size. Mature plants form mounds six to ten feet across when left unpruned.

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