Wild Amaranth, Purslane, Black Raspberries
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning”
The wheel of the year steadily turns like a great cosmic clock. Genesis 8:22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease. We have gone past the longest day of the year, but even though the sun is beginning to wane, it is high summer on the land. Gardens are finally yielding more than the early salad greens and radishes. The farmer’s markets are in full swing and it’s a time of rejoicing with picnics, camping trips, fishing expeditions and days at the lake.
My appetite for the wild greens is fully satisfied now. There are only a couple of latecomers I have not partaken of yet—namely Purslane and Wild Amaranth—that I will seek after, but this time of year I turn my attention to the berries. For the next two months I will make regular, frequent trips to the local wild berry patches, bringing in bucket after bucket of all kinds of berries.
Because my garden is supplying all my family’s need of fresh vegetables, during the summer I tend to focus more on harvesting medicinal herbs for teas and tinctures, oils and salves, rather than the wild foods I so eagerly sought in the spring.
||Wild Amaranth (Amaranthus spp)
Wild Amaranth is a latecomer to the table, not appearing until mid-June as a young sproutling, nor big enough for the table until July and August. You won’t find it in the wilder places as it is a more civilized plant, preferring to grow close to man, with a particular affinity for farmers. The best places to look for it are on farms or in your garden, places of sowing and reaping.
Amaranth has a rich history as a staple food of the highly advanced and fascinating Aztec civilization in Central and South America. It has few rivals in the plant kingdom for its high-protein, nutrient-dense seeds and foliage. It is also a virtually untapped agricultural resource.
There are many varieties of Amaranth, some are cultivated and bred for their edible, grain-like seeds, others as a floral ornamental. Still other varieties have gone wild and are despised by farmers for their tenacity and persistence in the fields. A common folk name for Wild Amaranth is “Pigweed”, suggesting that it is only fit to throw to the hogs.
Although Amaranth is grown agriculturally for its seed, it is not technically considered a grain. It is actually more closely related to spinach, beets, chard, and lambsquarters than to the cereal grasses that make up the primary food staples of the world. Quinoa is probably its nearest of kin, with a fairly similar profile and just about as unfamiliar as Amaranth in the mainstream.
||Wild Amaranth is not nearly as tall, stately, and well-bred as its cultivated brethren are. Left to grow unhindered it gets about 3 or 4 feet tall at best, with much smaller seedheads. The wild seeds are black, rather than a pale blonde like the agricultural variety. The wild seeds also have a tough impenetrable hull that makes them not suitable as a wild grain. They have the consistency of gravel in your bread and even ground like flour, if not finely sifted, they feel like sand on the palate. This tough exterior does give them superior survival skills as Wild Amaranth seeds can lie dormant in the field for up to 50 years, germinating only when conditions are right and enough frost and scarification have taken place. Thus they stubbornly resist the farmer’s efforts to eradicate them.
You can buy food-grade Amaranth seed at a co-op or specialty shop at a pretty reasonable price. It is not well-known or a common market item, but it is slowly inching it’s way into the public eye. It has tremendous potential as an agricultural resource as it has a heavy seed:harvest ratio. One tiny seed about as big as a period can produce up to a pound of edible grain in prime growing conditions. The greens are also edible with a stunning nutritional profile. Research into its potential to impact world hunger is very encouraging…..the Aztecs were definitely on to something here. For more on Amaranth and world hunger see also these links:
Locally, I harvest the Wild Amaranth for its powerhouse greens. A nutritional profile of Wild Amaranth is quite convicting. I find them out in the cultivated farm fields (not hay fields) throughout July or August. I am fortunate to have organic farms to harvest from, as this plant is a major target for broad-leaf pesticides and it also tends to draw up unhealthy levels of nitrates in chemically fertilized soils.
| I harvest the greens when the plant is between 6 & 12 inches tall, and I use them like a cooked spinach. Some might find Wild Amaranth difficult to identify because the greens are harvested before the signature seedhead emerges. Taking some time to get to know your weeds is definitely worthwhile.
Raw Amaranth greens are rather tough and chewy, nor are they particularly appetizing or co-operative as a salad green. Once cooked, however, they can easily pass for spinach. No one whould ever know the difference if you didn’t advertise. You could really get one over on the ‘pigweed’ crowd!
Wild Amaranth greens are good enough for the freezer if you have an abundant supply of them. To freeze them, I simply put on a big pot of water. I add the greens after the water is boiling and cook them for about 3-5 minutes. Then I strain them out and let them cool to room temperature. (Save the cooking liquid for soupstock or nourishing tonic drinks!) I put them in freezer bags in either 2 or 4 cup portions so they are already measured out for recipes. Then I label them and freeze.
To prepare Wild Amaranth greens for use in my favorite recipes, I parboil them the same way I do for the freezer. Then I can store them in the fridge until needed or use them right away. I use them in many of the same recipes I use for Nettles or Spinach or Lambsquarters. Here’s some recipes they go very well in:
Wild Amaranth Quiche
Wild Amaranth Lasagna
Wild Amaranth Hamburger Helper
Wild Amaranth Spanokopita
Wild Amaranth Cocktail
Here's some links to more recipes using Amaranth:
Cooking With Amaranth
Walton Feed: Amaranth
Mother Earth News: Amazing Amaranth
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane is another latecomer on the scene, tending to show up in my garden in early to mid-July. It grows like a creeping mat, carpeting the soil between the rows. It originates from India, where it ranks high as a succulent green, and later it immigrated to Europe where it was favored and cultivated as a common garden vegetable. Here in the U.S. it just can’t compete with the fast food burgers and fries so has fallen into disuse and ill-repute except among the eclectic gourmet crowd. In fact, it is virtually demonized by the herbicide industry, in spite of it’s remarkable reputation elsewhere in the world.
There is a garden variety of Purslane available from savvy seed suppliers, but the wild, volunteer version of this vegetable is just as good. Better, in my humble opinion, but of course I’m biased.
It is rather surprising that Purslane has yet to achieve stardom as it is one of the few plant sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 has been a hot item in the health food industry, marketed in expensive supplements, fish oil, and flaxseed oil. Our local Organic Valley dairy cooperative sells Omega 3 eggs for nearly 5$ a dozen, yet people are oblivious to the lowly and humble Purslane right there in the gardens and the fields, free for the taking.
Purslane has also been well documented for a multitude of other nutritional virtues:
||Purslane in the kitchen is succulent, meaning juicy and moist. Each of its little teardrop-shaped leaves are thick and fleshy, with a waxy surface. Inside they are what is called in the herb-world “mucilaginous”. This basically means it has a slippery, gelatinous texture, much like aloe vera or okra. These mucilaginous properties are very useful in herbal medicine for all manner of ills, both internal and external.
I let the Purslane in my garden grow to a decent size, then snip off branches into my basket, rather than pulling up the roots, so it can put off new growth and supply the table for weeks.
In the kitchen, I pluck off the leaves and toss the stems. I harvest Purslane even after it flowers and seeds. The flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, appearing at the ends of each branch or vine. I simply pluck the flowering tips right along with the leaves, all are perfectly edible.
|I almost always eat my Purslane raw , though there are recipes that call for sautéing it or using its mucilaginous properties to thicken soups. Purslane ripens around the same time as the first cucumbers, zucchinis and green beans do, and it is available right through tomato season as well. Now is also the hot, humid dog days of summer when cold, summer salads are the perfect food.
Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its pleasant fruits. Song of Solomon 4:16
July is the month for wild Blackcap Raspberries, which ripen around the same time as the farm-grown summer red raspberries. I have all the Blackcap patches in my neighborhood scoped out and make the rounds with the kids and the buckets at least every other day while they are in season.
The abundance and variety of wild berries in the Upper Midwest is quite impressive. The berry season begins with the wild strawberries in mid-June and continues through the frosty late October with a whole succession of ripening berries and fruits in between. Wild Strawberries give way to Black Raspberries (Blackcaps), Red Raspberries, and Gooseberries in July, Blackberries and Blueberries in August. Then come the Wild Cherries and Elderberries, Sumac Berries and Wild Grapes, Rosehips and Highbush Cranberries in September and October. Wintergreen berries can even be found under the snow! There are a whole host of lesser known berries as well.
Here are a couple of links to some good on-line wild berry field guides:
A Field Guide to Wild Berries
Cab's Wild Food Page: Edible Wild Fruit
There are also poisonous berries to watch out for. Some of these poisonous berries are used medicinally by skilled herbalists, with caution. Most poisonous berries won’t kill you, the worst they do is give you a bad stomachache or diarrhea if eaten in quantity. As with any unfamiliar food or plants be sure to identify your berries carefully. Caution is especially important in towns or landscaped areas because a great many of our ornamentals are highly poisonous despite beautiful, tempting berries.
Berries are exceptionally high in Vitamin C (when eaten raw). They are also very high in potassium, magnesium, fiber, and fructose, as well as an excellent source of iron and other trace minerals: Berry Nutrition Facts. These nutrients tend to be very concentrated in the wild berries and readily assimilated by our bodies. Hybridized berries tend to compromise the nutritional value of berries for size and uniformity. See also Using the Berry Plants for Nutrition and Medicine
Black Raspberries are my absolute favorite wild berry! We harvest enough fresh berries for pies and desserts and plenty more for winter stores. The first thing we make every year to kick off the season is a luscious pie:
The Ultimate Black Raspberry Pie
Here’s another pie recipe I use sometimes when I don’t have as much time in the kitchen:
Black Raspberry Pie
Berries really shine in cobblers and crisps as well:
Black Raspberry Crisp Deluxe
Black Raspberry Almond Cobbler
If I’m in a hurry, I freeze berries to use later on in the year. They are as simple as putting them into quart freezer bags or containers and setting them in the freezer. It takes only a few minutes to put up a bucketful this way. Kids love to suck on frozen berries for a healthy snack anytime of the year.
Unfortunately when they thaw out they are never quite the same; they tend to get soggy and seedy, although some kinds of berries fare better than others. They just aren’t as good in the dessert recipes as the fresh berries. Since they won’t behave in pie or cobbler recipes anymore, I run my thawed berries through a sieve and just use the pulp or juice to make a variety of treats. See the section on using berry juices for some great ideas for using your frozen berries this way.
Here’s a link to a website devoted to Frozen Berries, just loaded with recipe ideas and nutritional information:
Creative Gourmet: Frozen Berries
I also make lots of wild jam each year. Once you’ve tried making jams a few times, you’ll discover it’s remarkably easy and doesn’t require any special equipment. The ‘traditional’ American jams and jellies are intensely sweet, with ratios of sugar to fruit as high as 3:1. After making my own jams for years I cannot tolerate the sweetness of storebought jams.
The only special ingredient you’ll need to make your own jams is pectin. There are several options to choose from these days, thankfully, as this didn’t used to be the case. There are ‘regular’ pectins, low-sugar pectins and now even no-sugar pectins. There is also a kind of pectin sold in health food stores called Pomona Universal pectin that allows you to use honey to sweeten your jams. I like to use both the Universal pectin and the no-sugar pectin. These allow me the freedom to sweeten the jams to taste. I like them just sweet enough to satisfy the sweet tooth, but not so much that I can’t taste all the goodness of the fruits. When I make Black Raspberry jam (and most of my other jams), I generally use a proportion of 2 cups sugar:5 cups fruit.
Sometimes I make honey-sweetened jams using the Universal Pomona pectin but I can’t always get a good gel using honey. The honey also changes the flavor of the berries some, not to mention the price of honey these days!
All the instructions for making your jams and jellies are included inside every box of pectin. There’s also plenty of good web pages on the subject. Here’s a couple to get you started:
Basics of Jelly Making
National Center For Home Food Preservation: Jams and Jellies
Using your homemade Black Raspberry jam shouldn’t be any trouble! My favorite way to eat my wild jams is on a hot buttered English muffin. But since I make so much of the stuff, I have developed plenty of other ways to enjoy it over the years. Here’s a few suggestions for showcasing your wild jams:
* Mix your wild berry jams with applesauce
* Buy plain yoghurt instead of the sweetened fruit yogurts and add a dollop of wild jam to each cup of yogurt. Kids will eat it right up!
*Try topping your morning pancakes or French toast with yogurt and wild berry jam instead of butter and syrup.
* Roll your wild berry jams into homemade crepes with yogurt or cream cheese filling for an extra special five-star breakfast.
* Spread your jam on top of your favorite cheesecake recipe to give it a wild gourmet touch.
*Try making wild berry jelly rolls! Imagine bringing a Wild Black Raspberry Jelly Roll to a potluck!
Try my yummy recipe for Wild Berry Cheesecake Bars
A number of years ago I purchased a piece of kitchen equipment that I have come to love in a special way: A Mehu Liisa steam juicer. This clever device comes to us from Scandanavia and is the perfect tool for extracting the juices from your fruits and berries for canning purposes. The Mehu Liisa is stainless steel and costs around 100$. There are cheaper steam juicers on the market these days but they are made out of aluminum , which you should NEVER use to cook anything with, and most especially not the acidic fruits, berries and tomatoes. The steam juicer extracts a concentrated juice using gentle steam, a process superior to boiling as it retains more of the vitamins, minerals, flavors and colors of the fresh-picked berries. The only regret that I have in using it is that the berries are not juiced raw, but there are other devices for that. I use the steam juicer when I have large quantities of berries and fruits that I want to preserve and store as juice.
The rich, intense flavored juices that come from the wild berries always seems so precious and special. Captured in the juices are the sun and rain and beauty of the places where the berries grew and ripened, the memories of the time spent harvesting, and the incredible wealth of nutrients locked inside each berry. These juices are truly a labor of love and a great blessing to your family.
Wild berries are such a concentrated food source that the prepared juice is very rich and very satisfying in small amounts, a very different experience from our commercial juices that are often much diluted with apple juice and highly sweetened with sugar, fructose, corn syrup or grape concentrates. Just a tablespoon or two of straight wild berry juice can be like a spoonful of medicine, useful for a good vitamin boost.
I don’t bother to juice the Black Raspberries unless I have at least a gallon ice-cream bucketful or more. I can the juices right out of the steamer into glass juice bottles. The lids of these are re-sealable as long as they haven’t been damaged and still have the smooth plastic coating on the inside of the lid intact. I add about a half cup of honey for every quart of juice that I can, putting the honey directly into the jar before pouring the hot juice into it.
I keep a large store of juices on hand every year, and have found them to be incredibly versatile and useful, besides being a good tonic beverage. Here’s some of the ways I use my wild berry juices:
*Drink your Wild Berry juices straight up or cut them with apple juice to mellow out the intense flavors for the less mature palates.
*Wild Berry Lemonade: Jazz up your summer lemonades with a splash of wild berry juice!
*Punch: Use wild juices as a base for your favorite punch recipe. Punch can be as simple as gingerale and juice mixed together, or more extravagant for those special occasions.
*Healthy sodas: I make healthy wild sodas out of wild berry juices and soda water. You can get carbonated soda water very cheaply in the liquor department of a store, I have found them for as little as 3-for-a-dollar at Wal-Mart. I sweeten the juices a little more than they already are and mix them roughly half and half with the bubbly soda water. Kids love this and these sodas are actually extremely good for them instead of loaded with sugar, caffeine, dye and all the other garbage that’s in our sodas today.
*Popsicles: I freeze sweetened wild juices for a healthy popsicle snack in the summer.
*Jello: You can buy the unflavored gelatin packets in the grocery store and use them to make wild berry jellos! Gelatin is good for the bones, hair and fingernails, and the wild berries are good for everything else! A nourishing, fun wild snack that kids will love! Try making wild berry ambrosia for a really exciting dessert!
*Smoothies: I make smoothies using wild berry juices whipped up with yogurt and whatever other goodies I have on hand. Black Raspberry smoothies are simple out of this world!!!!
*Milkshakes: You can make a yummy wild milkshake by whipping up vanilla ice cream and some wild berry juice in a blender.
*Glazes: I make glazes for some of my baking projects out of wild berries. You can make the glaze ahead and freeze it or make it to order to top cheesecakes and coffeecakes and whatnot.
*Sorbet: I bought my husband a little electric ice cream maker for his birthday a couple of years ago and we have had all kinds of fun inventing ice cream recipes. Best of all are the wild berry sorbets! They are essentially just wild berry juice and sweetener, frozen in the ice cream-maker, healthy and delicious!
*Jelly: If you didn’t have time in the summer when the berries were fresh to make jam, it’s not too late if you have preserved the juice! You can make wild berry jellies from your wild berry juices anytime of the year. (Hint: They make great Christmas presents!)
*Syrup : You can cook your juices down with sugar to make wild berry syrups for pancakes, French toast, waffles, Italian sodas and more.
*Flavored milk: I see flavored milks on the market these days in the dairy section of the supermarket—strawberry milk, chocolate milk, vanilla milk. But if you read the label on these they are flavored with sugar and dye. Nutritionists endorse them saying that at least they are getting the nutrients from the milk. Why not make a wild berry flavored milk? Use a ¼ cup of wild berry syrup to each cup of milk. Guaranteed to disappear…..
*Cough syrup: I make my own cough syrups each year and like to use my wild juices to flavor them.
*Vinaigrettes: Try making Wild Berry Vinaigrette to jazz up your salads!
Berries are fun, versatile, nutritious, and wonderful in every way. Every family should have a favorite berry patch and make summer berry harvest a family tradition. Kids just instinctively know what to do with berries, right down to the littlest one. I’ve seen babies not yet able to walk prove quite adept at picking ripened berries. It is a deeply instinctive act…………..
Here's a wonderful webpage on wild berries:
Native Foods: Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk