BY AMY PENNINGTON
Last summer on the highway home from a long weekend at Lake Chelan, I pulled my car across three lanes of traffic when I spotted a tall slender tree hunched over by the weight of its small blue berries. I had noticed the same trees on the way out to the lake, but wasn’t sure they were what I thought they were – elderberries. Some sleuthing in books (yes, I packed my copy of Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples) and a quick bit of online research over the weekend confirmed my suspicion and I made a vow to find some trees on the way home. Yanking my car across the road may have startled my co-pilot (sorry, Katie!) but she forgave me as I scaled up a loose clay hill and threw fat clusters of berries her way. Elderberries! It was like we struck gold and were giddy with excitement. I knew I was going to make syrup and Katie knew she was destined for elderberry tincture (elderberries are thought to be high in antioxidants). With four shopping bags full, we headed home with stained fingers and dusty clothes.
These same gorgeous trees produce dense clusters of blossoms in the spring, more commonly known as elderflowers. According to an online index of plants from the University of Washington, the trees can be found from British Columbia to California and typically grow along river banks, and open places in low level areas near a water source The flowers blossom around May, growing in dense clusters. These white flowers are heavily scented and smell of thick honey and sweet pollen. When steeped in water and sweetened, they impart a delicate floral note and make an excellent syrup for sipping (they’re the basis for trendy St. Germain liqueur). I first had this syrup in Croatia, at my cousin’s landlord’s house, with a splash of seltzer. She called it Sirup od Bazga, and taught me how to make it. Now that I know where to find these trees in spades, I’ll definitely be stocking my pantry this year. Drivers east of the mountains, you’ve been warned.
Makes about 4 cups
start to finish: 2 days plus 30 minutes
30 flower clusters
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
1 lemon, zest reserved & juiced
2 teaspoons citric acid (available in the vitamin section of most stores)
Place flower clusters in a large bowl and cover with the water. Make sure blossoms stay submerged and let it sit out on the counter for two days. Strain out blossoms and discard. Over medium heat, heat the blossom-infused water and add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Remove promptly from heat and add lemon zest and lemon juice. Pour liquid through a fine mesh strainer lined with damp cheesecloth, straining out any residual petals and the lemon zest. Add citric acid, stirring to dissolve. Bottle syrup in an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to 8 weeks.
washed jars | store in fridge
Lucky for us, in the Pacific Northwest we have gobs of edible wilds ripe for picking. Unlucky for us, sometimes you really need to do your homework to know where to look. Good thing, then, that our urban jungle is home to easily identifiable treats from nature. Apples, blackberries—these plants are easy to identify and everyone knows they’re edible. But a Big Leaf maple? I’m betting that never crossed your mind. Seattle plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobsen wrote about these large maple trees several years ago, and what I recall most about the article is that the tree’s flowers are edible. Like the elderflower, maple trees form heavy clusters of florets each spring, starting in April. Most maple trees are quite tall, so foraging after a storm is a great idea as branches tend to break off. Failing that, put on your climbing shoes. The flowers are lime green and look like tiny pine cones, and carry a soft, round sweetness. Similar to maple syrup, but not nearly as sweet, these blossoms can be made into an infusion (as above), sautéed or eaten raw, but they also make a subtle and delicious quick pickle. These little pickled buds can be added to salads of bitter greens or used as a garnish along with minced shallots and chopped herbs on a grilled steak. They don’t keep long before getting mushy, so are best eaten within several weeks.
Pickled Maple Blossoms
Makes about 2 cups
start to finish: 20 minutes
2 cups maple blossoms
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 whole star anise (optional)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
Pinch of salt
Place maple blossoms in a glass pint jar, and pack them down. In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar, star anise, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, and salt over medium heat until simmering. When the liquid is near boiling, pour it over the blossoms and let the mixture sit on the counter until cool, stirring gently on occasion. When cool, store pickled maple blossoms in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to several weeks.
washed jars | store in fridge
This spring, you can find Amy Pennington clawing up the side of a hill in search of the perfect blossoms, or find out more about what she’s up to in the garden and in the kitchen at www.gogogreengarden.com.