Tag Archives: berries

With apologies to Wisconsin, a love note to Alaska

My mental map of Juneau is populated more with berry bushes than actual manmade landmarks: hairy stinkcurrants and blackcurrants, which make the best jam; red currants, not only delicious but about as optimal as foraging gets; salmonberries, juicy but flavorless, a good fallback or pick-me-up on a bike ride; and of course blueberries. Last year W. brought home from Alaska, as a consolation prize for the wage slaves in our household, namely me, a case of blueberry jam.

This year, alas, we were too early for berries. The currant-skeins were all so small and green …

However, we were not too early for Dolly Vardens. Named, I remind you, for a flirty Dickens tart in a polka-dotted dress. Dollies are hardly flirtatious, though. They’ll just eat whatever, and that’s why I love them.

They taste like a delicate cross between trout and salmon. Yet salmon and halibut, the big fatty brutes, get far more attention. Lucky me.

Of course, W. and I are not averse to salmon-fishing. We carried home two of the four we caught, frozen and wrapped in my wedding-party attire. (The wedding being the ostensible occasion we were there; the fishing being the actual reason.)

If W. learned anything as a teenaged deckhand on a charter-fishing boat, he learned how to make fish look big in the photo. I think the blood makes it look like he won a knife-fight with the fish.

Rockfish: Disparaged by salmon fishermen, but it makes the best Thai fish cakes.


We did a lot of nostalgic hunting and foraging, starting the first day: a bike ride to a bolete spot at the base of a glacier, followed by waffles at the Waffle House, followed by dolly-fishing amid the horseflies at Eagle Beach. I have many fond memories of slow, brain-dead waffle-eating after a long day of foraging or hiking out the road. And I love the luxury of how casual fishing is in Juneau: deciding after the day’s main-course activity, to follow up with a little casting … not driving all day to get to a fishing spot; not staking ego or happiness on whether anything is caught, because the fish are so plentiful. In Wisconsin I haven’t encountered any fish bonanzas except winter bluegills, which are hardly worth eating.

Other notable edibles:

• Beach asparagus, a salty vegetable I just learned about. Would make excellent salad garnish.

Foraging for the masses: The Shriners in their tiny cars and everyone else at the 4th of July parade spend most of the parade throwing taffy at people. Sartorial note: Shriners in Alaska wear fancy rubber boots from Fred Meyer.

• A Maryland-style crab boil, with newspapers festively lining the table — Maryland-style except for the size of the crabs — something I’d been yearning for since I left Alaska. Incidentally, PSP has recently been found in Southeast Alaska crab guts. (You never ate the guts anyway, but do be careful.) I am concerned that the anthropogenic rise in sea temperatures will bode ill for my love affair with Dungies and other Alaska shellfish. If the oysters start getting spawny in Kake, that’s when I’ll grow a beard, slash my clothes and start wandering the streets with signs about Impending Doom.

The actual reason we went to Alaska: A wedding in Excursion Inlet, two hours' boat ride from Juneau. This picture marks the first time I have mixed high heels with seaweed.

Wisconsin has its charms, such as the four gallon bags of cherries I put in the freezer last week. But I left my heart somewhere in Gastineau Channel — to feed, naturally, the Dolly Vardens I hope to catch on my return.

Here we go round the mulberry tree

These are from a recent California trip. But the grabbing action is identical to what I do in Wisconsin.

Lately it has been a joy to go running in my neighborhood, aside from the actual exercise aspect of it. Continue reading

The Year in Foraging

The climax of the 2009: tiny little fish, pulled out of the fish hole.

It was a very good year. This will catch you up on all the things I put in my mouth this year, and a few that escaped:

1. While covering a Coast Guard winter survival school in Juneau, learned to eviscerate and eat the roe of a sea urchin, and also where to find sea urchins. Terrible ambivalence introduced to deep love for otters.

2. Ate eggs from variety chickens of a northern chicken coop. Tasted exactly like eggs. Also saw a Ziploc bag full of all the eggs a chicken has inside itself. There were eight yolks of varying sizes, down to the tiniest youngest egg. The white isn’t put on until just before it’s about to get laid.

3. In spring, pried various creatures off the rocks and ate them. Also sampled every kind of kelp on rocks. Made W. eat a sea urchin. Forwent eating a chiton longer than forearm, on account of it oozing eggs and trying really hard to reproduce.

4. Acquired pink Disney Princess plastic fishing pole from Fred Meyer. Fished like heck all summer. Learned to carry salt on me. Fished during lunch at work, and from every place you can fish off the road in Juneau.

5. Entered, with brewmaster W., a brown ale in the Haines Beer Festival. Gusher. Oops. Good though.

6. Bought kayak, learned to net dollies while paddling.

7. Came home with sixteen brook trout. Later learned limit was ten. Ate fish for more meals than desired. Gave fish to cats. Learned cats do not like fish. Wrote short history of said brook trout.

8. Worst meal of year: pad thai while camping.

9. Dug clams with a master. Ate none of the clams. Meanwhile wrote about new frontiers in paralytic shellfish poisoning detection.

10. Wreaked revenge on devil’s club by eating it. Coworkers preferred it to sea cucumber.

11. Killed (well, W. killed), butchered with kitchen knives, made posole of and ate a Mount Roberts porcupine.

12. Picked red and orange salmonberries, raspberries, nagoonberries, cloudberries, thimbleberries, blueberries, huckleberries and at least four kinds of currants. Made mental map of underexploited currant bushes in Juneau, and preserves.

13. Moved to Madison. Found wild places hiding in the urban zone. Started blog.

14. Worked a month at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station. Consciousness expanded regarding varieties of apples, grapes, peppers, raspberries, what have you. Epic canning and pickling sessions. Trauma from late blight.

15. Things that fall from trees or bushes: Walnuts, apples, blackberries, wild grapes, seaberries.

16. Fungi: Oysters, late oysters, angel wings, hedgehogs, honeys, velvet stalks, puffballs, corn smut, boletes, chickens of the woods, stinkhorns (not eaten). Etc.

17. A turtle. Not eaten.

17. Drove motorcycle from San Francisco to Madison via Yuma. Date shakes, tamales, chorizo and eggs, Hal’s horseradish, a 72 oz. steak I didn’t eat.

18. Before the snow hit, the cranberries finally ripened.

19. Raccoon. From a butcher. With a foot. As goulash.

20. Ice-fishing. A dream realized—with tiny little fish.

Highbush cranberries: redeemed?—Recipe: Chipotle-cranberry barbeque sauce

In my vision, the highbush cranberry sauce crosses the River Styx. Or the River Yahara, maybe. Anubis places its bitter heart on one side of the scale, and weighs it against a sugar cube. If the cranberry falls, it goes to hell and the compost bin. The sugar falls, and we all go pick more cranberries in the Elysian Fields, which, the Egyptian mythmasters forgot to mention, is full of cranberry bushes. Just like Madison.

I’m the lone taster so far, but I think the highbush cranberry is redeemed (See previous post: “Theory: If the highbush cranberry were any good, it would have been eaten by now.”) I offer you all this recipe to illustrate my experiment, not as the last word on the berries. Lacking a sieve, my straining method is primitive and laughable, my return on cranberry goop meager.

Recipe: Chipotle-cranberry barbeque sauce.
Makes a little more than one pint. You could easily improve that yield.

3 cups highbush cranberries
1/2 cup chopped onions
bit of oil
1/2 cup champagne vinegar (I’d use cider vinegar if I had it.)
1 cup brown sugar
1 dried chipotle pepper
pinch cloves
pinch allspice
several pinches cinnamon
pinch white pepper
salt to taste

1. Start hydrating that leathery old chipotle pepper in hot water.

A pox on the seeds, even if they do make more berries.

2. Cook cranberries in water until they’re soft.

3. Meanwhile, saute the onions in a bit of oil. (Other recipes say to boil the onions with the berries. But then they clog the strainer—and you don’t get the lovely Maillard flavors.)

4. Strain the berries. I forced the berry goop through my bowl-shaped strainer, and for Pete’s sake, you ought to be able to do better. Pureeing in the blender is a terrible shortcut, let me tell you. The highbush cranberry has a single large seed that just kills the party whenever it is encountered.

Highbush cranberry goop.

4. Add the onions. Puree the result in the blender.

5. Add everything else. Cook it down for a half-hour or more. The flavors meld, and it turns from a pinkish red to a lovely golden brown.

A variation: Cook it less, and leave out the chipotle, and you’d get an interesting, bitter-edged ketchup.

There you go. I imagine it would go well on pork or, if you don’t eat pork, raccoon.

Theory: If highbush cranberries were any good, they would have been eaten by now.

Hard times, people. Were we relying on the woods for substantial calories, we would be starting to eye those wiry jackrabbits that run across the Capital City Bike Path.

Regarding mushrooms, checked the old mushroom log near my house, the one that’s been producing food since August. Provider Log, we call it. Pocketed a last few old oysters, now dried out and frozen, old holdouts. Shivered. No velvet stalks; I have been wondering what the limits of these so-called cold-weather Flammulinas are, but they are gone from the logs where they were a month ago. Perhaps they went to Florida.

Cat inspects cranberries ...

The only berries left are the ones nobody wants, not even the birds. Highbush cranberries. They still line the Yahara River, and many other places. W. and I started picking them, optimistically, in Cowee Meadows, north of Juneau, in July, when they were peach and blush and hard as rocks. We have tried them every now and then ever since. W. made some gorgeous ruby jam in September. Recipes often call for more sugar than berries—anything that requires that much sugar is a stretch to call edible—and these were not ripe. We had trouble admitting the jam’s terrible bitterness and it stood for weeks in the fridge, beautiful, untouched.

... and decides an empty paper bag is more interesting.

Finally the cranberries are ripe. But still troubled: “Highbush cranberries have a single seed which is not eaten,” says the Internet, far too late to warn us. Our downfall here is that we despise the act of straining food. Over here we are closer to the Campfire than the Haute school of cuisine. This winter we plan to extract fish from the frozen lakes and sap from city maple trees. We will shoot rabbits, if we find we are up to the violent task. But what is out there now? I mean, outside grocery stores and restaurants. Highbush cranberries, as far as I can tell. I suppose I should get a sieve, and a whole lot of sugar, and try again.