Sunday, October 26, 2014

Autumn Olive Adventures

Autumn olives begin to ripen, September in New England
Autumn olives begin to ripen, September in New England
Autumn in New England, what to eat?  Wild apples, Concord grapes, several varieties of mushrooms, not to mention the wide selection of fruits and vegetables available from our gardens and farm stands.

In the past, I have often focused on hunting for hen of the woods mushrooms in the early fall.  Last year there were so many that we literally didn't know what to do with them all.  I had a full freezer, pickled mushrooms in the pantry, dried maitake in the cupboard.  In anticipation of another harvest, I only recently tossed my last frozen block of sautéed hen of the woods soup stock.  Little did I know...

2014 has been a terrible hen of the woods year for me.  Maybe I just got my timing wrong.  Or perhaps it was the dry August, or maybe the warm September but, for whatever reason, these mushrooms were few and far between.  One of my chef acquaintances verifies that he hasn't seen many maitake foragers this fall, one or two nice mushrooms, perhaps, but nothing like last year.  The only mushroom I spotted here in Rhode Island was at the bottom of an old oak in Roger Williams Park.  It was along an infamous dog walking trail and showed signs of, well, you know what I mean.

The hen of the woods will be back another year. 

In the meantime, I have turned my attention to a bounty that I had previously ignored almost entirely.  And what a bounty!  The autumn olive (or "autumn berry", as some aficionados are now rebranding it) is a small, red berry with a bad reputation.  This tree is taking over the fields, wastelands and forest edges of New England -- as well as much of the rest of the United States.  It looks much like many other decorative "bird berries", and grows so plentifully that it is almost impossible to imagine how tasty it can be!

The autumn olive, Elaeagnus unbellata (thumb.), was first introduced to the United States from Japan in 1830.  This bushy tree, growing up to 20 feet tall, is capable of producing thousands of small red berries, possibly hundreds of pounds on a full-grown tree.  The fruit is the size of a wild blueberry, the shape of a tiny cherry, bright red in color and speckled with tiny silver dots.  Berries are easy to pick, growing in generous clumps along branches.  Berries start to ripen in early fall.  Some trees ripen earlier than others.  Some trees remain viable well into the winter.  Sometimes one side of a bush will ripen earlier than the other side.  When picking, you should taste berries from time to time for sweetness, especially when you move to a branch with greener leaves or smaller berries. 

The berry flavor varies from tart cranberry to sweet raspberry, depending on the maturity of the berry and the quality of the bush.  Beyond taste, there is also this funny feeling in the back of the throat that takes some getting used to.  This lessens with maturity and disappears entirely with cooking, but can be almost alarming in fresh or frozen fruit, feeling a bit like the beginnings of an asthma attack.  If you don't like this feeling, never fear, just make jelly.

In my experience, the sweetest berries are found on trees with yellow, falling leaves.  Fatter berries tend to be tastier, and berries are fatter after significant rainfall.  Beware occasional thorns on smaller bushes.  As trees grow taller, thorns disappear.

Autumn olive seeds appear to be entirely edible with no noticeable ill effects -- at least not for me.  As with all new foods, try them in small doses to test for allergies.  I won't argue with the purists who hold that most, if not all, seeds contain toxins, but I have personally consumed thousands of these seeds.  I find them only slightly annoying.  Seed consistency seems to vary slightly from berry to berry, some chew up nicely, some form into small, fuzzy clumps, and some leave behind tiny, woody bits in my mouth.  Being used to wild foods, this doesn't bother me in the least.  My wife and son are a little less adventurous and would rather spend $6 a pound on frozen, organic raspberries.  Yikes!  But when I make autumn olive jelly, nobody is complaining.

Autumn olives make a great jelly, as well as tasty fruit leather and juice.  The product is reminiscent of cranberry relish or grape jelly, depending on the maturity of the fruit.  Just follow any standard jelly recipe and substitute autumn olive berries for the fruit -- making sure to strain out the seeds after boiling the berries.  Don't freeze the berries first or you'll have a hard time extracting the juice!  The autumn olive has some natural pectin, but I generally throw in a couple of apples to be sure that it will jell properly.  If you want to save time and get a more reliable consistency, use store-bought pectin.

I throw half a cup of frozen autumn olive berries into every smoothie I make and, admittedly, end up with those little, woody bits in the resulting, delicious, drink.  If you don't mind that extra fiber, you're in for a very healthy, delicious treat.

Autumn Olive Smoothie recipe (vegan)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cashews
1 ripe banana
1-2 orange(s), peeled and roughly cut
3/4 cup frozen mango
1/2 cup frozen autumn olives
dash of vanilla
Blend until frozen mango is entirely pulverized
Add water or OJ to adjust thickness

As for health benefits, I consider the autumn olive to be a veritable super-food.  Lycopene is reputedly present in significant amounts in this small, plentiful berry. Some claim that it makes tomatoes look like lycopene amateurs.  The autumn olive also is reported to contain high levels of vitamin A, C and E, phytoene, a- and ß-cryptoxanthin, and ß-carotene.

Autumn olives, leaves turning, early October, Southern New England
Autumn olives, leaves turning, early October, Southern New England
Autumn olive has earned a bad rap as an invasive species.  This is entirely fair, as we have created the perfect conditions for its growth.  Autumn olive is one of few non-leguminous trees that fixes nitrogen.  It requires almost nothing except occasional dampness in order to grow.  The best way to fight invasive species is to provide our native species with their traditional, healthy habitats.  So long as we strip the nutrient from our soils, so-called "invasive" nitrogen fixers like autumn olive and Japanese knot weed, will have the upper hand.

Also, please check out my new website: plant22.com.  I am building a new web store, the profits of which will go toward reforesting the world.  Look for our soft launch in the next couple of months.

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