September 19, 2012

The Maine Ingredient: Elderberry jelly at home? Yes, you can

By Anne Mahle

The Elder species may now, thanks to J.K. Rowling, be most known not for its cooking properties or many healing abilities, but instead for the wood's magical capacity embodied in powerful wands as held by Harry Potter among others in the Wizarding World.

While I don't have much to share by way of experience with wand magic, I can share my journey with the plant, its beautiful deep purple berries and what can be done in the kitchen with these gems.

The black elder plant (Sambucus canadensis) is a shrub that can reach more than 30 feet high sprouting umbels, umbrella-like lacy clusters of flowers that turn in late summer to dark, purple berries. The berries begin as bright green and gradually turn to a merlot-burgundy color, and when ripe the umbels begin to bend from the weight of the full, nearly black berries, conveniently making them a little easier to reach.

The flowers and berries are used for all sorts of ailments in tinctures, teas and glycerins from fever to weight loss, colds to anemia and even as a relaxant or a hair dye. The berries themselves are tart and somewhat pungent when eaten raw, and can make some people feel nauseous, so go slowly in the beginning when tasting. It's when the berry is cooked that it begins to really shine and the luscious flavor really blossoms.

Another word of caution: As with all foraging, make sure that you've identified your species properly and are picking berries from the common black elder shrub rather than the red elder tree (Sambucus pubens), which can be toxic and has bright red fruit that grows in a dome shape.

OK, so now that the cautionary tales are out of the way, if you are lucky enough to have a wild patch of elderberries nearby as my grandmother had, keep their location a closely held secret just as someone might a mushroom glen. If not, you can do as I did and create your own luck by planting your own patch. Mine was planted last summer, and I'll probably be able to harvest 1 pound of berries from each of my 12 plants this year.

In addition to their generous harvest that will continue to expand over the years, the line of shrubs creates a wind break and predator barrier for the garden, enclosing it in a horseshoe of protection. Maybe the magical qualities of the wood are at work in my garden too? Who knows?

To harvest elderberries, cut the berry clusters from the shrub and collect in a large, lined basket or metal pail. Rinse the berries thoroughly. To remove the berries from the cluster, hold one end firmly and run your fingers gently through the lacy umbel, working the berries off as gently as possible. Discard the stem and any stray leaves or green berries.

These first several steps I've found to be better done outside and with a smock or old long-sleeved shirt on, as the berries are juicy and can easily stain more than your hands! Rinse again, straining all water and weigh. Freeze any extra berries or save for another recipe. One pound of destemmed berries will make about 1 cup of berry juice.

Just a note here about canning in general. I've tried all sorts of low-sugar, natural pectin (grating apples, etc.) methods for making jams and jellies, and while I applaud those who can get consistent results from either, do not in the slightest feel it's "cheating" to use sugar or pectin in a jam or jelly recipe. There are some who need to watch closely their sugar intake, and the low-sugar varieties do work, I've just gotten more consistent results from the tried and true. 

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