Making up recipes with foraged ingredients in the winter usually means a little foraging in the pantry for all that is dried, pickled, frozen or fermented. I never actually expected to find fresh edibles well into February in this area, and certainly not juicy berries. But here is one little shrub, much overlooked and maligned, which is at its best in late winter. Highbush cranberry (viburnum trilobum) is not a cranberry at all but a deciduous shrub which can grow to 4 meters in height. Its leaves are similar in appearance to maple leaves. Clusters of white blossoms appear in the spring, and the green berry turns to orange and then a bright red in October or November. No wonder it is often used as a decorative landscaping plant, standing out particularly in winter months where the berries afford a beautiful contrast to the snow. It is an easy plant to identify with its clusters of berries measuring about 15mm in length and 12 mm in width. They have a single, flat white seed, and a pungent smell which is less strong in the winter after a few freezes and thaws. Rich in vitamin C, it is maybe a too bitter for many palates, but like many bitter foods has a good flavour once sweetened. Further to my experiments with cooking with these wild cranberries, I decided to make a vegan toffee using just sugar and coconut milk with the berries. First I pureed 1 cup berries. If you want a very smooth puree, pass them through a food mill to remove all the seeds and skin. This was added to 2 (400 ml) tins of coconut milk and 2 cups of sugar. Cook the mixture on a low heat until it reaches 270 degrees F on a candy thermometer, or between the hard and soft ball stages. This took approximately one and a half hours. Once cooked, pour into a 9 inch sq. pan lined with parchment paper and allow to cool completely. Cut into whatever size and shape you like and store in a very cool place. They are quite sticky when at room temperature. The flavour reminds me of a tamarind sweet – very creamy and soft. I will be taking these to Fiesta Friday – do drop by to see what the other guests have brought.
Last Sunday it was a balmy -3 C, and for me the first opportunity of the year to get out and do some foraging. It just goes to show that even in this challenging climate, there is always something out there for the foraging enthusiast. Apart from having to negotiate the deep snow banks, I found this to be an ideal time to pick sumac. The flowers just snapped off, and the berries likewise were much easier to remove from the stems than they had been in the summer. In just a few minutes, I had a full bag of flowers, and the bushes still looked untouched.
I started by making a sumac syrup, this time cooking it for longer than in my previous experiments. I filled a crock pot about 3/4 full, poured water until the mixture reached the brim, and then cooked it on low for 12 hours. Then I strained the deep red juice through a coffee filter to be used in some new recipes. Here it is after 12 hours of stewing.
The first is for a sumac meringue pie, which I present to The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday for this week. Since my theory that sumac is the new lemon, it can replace the imported fruit just about anywhere, and what better place to begin than with a festive pie.
To make the syrup: Measure off 4 cups of juice, add 1 cup of sugar and simmer until you have about 2 1/2 cups of syrup.
Pastry: I used a recipe from La Petite Paniere, the one she uses for Tarte Tatin (which by the way I highly recommend) because I did not want a flaky, lard pastry but rather a buttery French style one. Or use your own favourite recipe for a meringue pie.
2 1/2 cups sumac syrup
1/4 cup tapioca or corn starch
5 egg yolks
Mix the starch together with the syrup until it thickens. Spoon some of the hot liquid into the beaten yolks and then add the egg yolk mixture into the syrup pot. Continue to cook and stir for a couple of minutes.
5 egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
Beat the egg whites. When stiff, add the sugar and cream of tartar and continue to beat until peaks form.
Pour the custard into a baked pie shell. Top with meringue and bake in a 350 oven until the meringue is golden on top. Allow to cool before cutting.
This pie is not only local and organic, at least the sumac part, but also requires a lot less sugar than a lemon version. I hope this sumac meringue pie will help persuade the skeptics that even invasive weeds are sometimes worth considering as a valuable source of great food.