When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was amazed at how many people had the same landscaping complaint. "I spent all weekend cutting down the blackberries," some co-worker would groan on Monday morning, looking for sympathy for the lost hours and aching back. However, as someone who didn't grow up in such Edenic surroundings, I was totally dumbfounded. Cutting back blackberries? Why would you cut back blackberries? Don't they, you know, give you blackberries?
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories on topics ranging from urban agriculture to gefilte fish have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America, The World and Northwest News Network, and in The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.
After spending more than a decade in Oregon, I can better understand the complaint. Sort of. Yes, blackberries are an invasive species, decreasing your backyard's square footage with the perennial canes that poke up everywhere. And yes, if left unkempt they turn into a big thorny thicket, hard to penetrate beyond a few feet. But let me repeat: They give you blackberries.
Blackberries are, however, everywhere. Oregon's temperate climate is perfect for their growth, and they spring up in all sorts of places, from forest paths to urban roadsides. There are native blackberries, imports from Europe that have taken hold over the past 100 years, and agriculture-school-developed cultivars (including the beloved marionberry, named after Oregon's Marion County). Whenever the season comes around, I carpool with friends to a favorite picking spot, where the berries are nice and fat and you don't have to tromp too far into the underbrush to get them. We come with buckets to fill and towels to wipe our purple-stained hands, abuzz with excitement and temporarily forgetting that picking thorny blackberries is about as much fun as (and fairly similar to) getting scratched by cats.
But there's a reason we come back year after year, despite nursing sticky scratches up and down the arms. Blackberries are really, really good. They have a deliciously complex flavor, ranging from puckeringly tart to an almost winelike depth (they vary depending on the variety of cane, the particulars of the growing season and the age of the individual berries). Blackberries are good for you, as well, with high levels of antioxidants. Heck, even their pesky seeds are good for you, reputedly full of omega-3s and fiber and all sorts of antioxidants. And when you come upon a particularly good patch, where the berries are drippingly juicy, ridiculously large and free for the taking, it's hard to believe your good luck.
At first, I devour the berries out of hand, making the most of a short season. But blackberries' depth and tartness make them perfect for a variety of uses. With their high pectin, they're well-suited to jam, which is a great way to process an especially large haul (I run about half of them through a food mill first, to keep some texture but not end up with an overly seedy product). They complement creamy dishes from cheesecakes to ice creams and add a surprising note to savory recipes.
It's easy to take such deliciousness for granted, to grumble as you spend hours clearing a prickly thicket. But despite the thorns, the invasive persistence and the all-too-short season, I can never stay mad at blackberries for too long. I mean, after all — they're blackberries.
Recipe: Blackberry-Rosemary Focaccia
This focaccia is somewhere between sweet and savory, perfect for a first course or nibbling with a glass of wine. It's best devoured within a few hours of baking, but that shouldn't be a problem. If you don't have time to make dough (this recipe is started a day or two before you want to bake), you can substitute a commercial pizza dough instead.
Makes two 9-inch focaccia, enough for appetizers for 6 to 10, depending on their level of hunger/restraint
1 cup water
1 teaspoon active yeast
1 tablespoon coarse salt, divided
3 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/4 cup olive oil, divided, plus additional for greasing the bowl and handling the dough
2 1/4 cups (10 ounces) bread flour
1 heaping cup blackberries
2 teaspoon fresh rosemary needles
Combine the water and yeast in a bowl, and let sit for a minute or two to allow the yeast to soften and bloom. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the oil and the flour. Mix with a large spoon until fully blended, then cover and let sit for 5 minutes to fully hydrate. Mix for an additional minute or two, until the dough becomes smooth. Grease another bowl with a bit of oil, and, using a spatula, transfer the dough into the bowl. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.
After the dough has rested, using wet or oiled hands, reach into the bowl under one end of the dough, and pull it gently to fold the dough in half. Repeat with the other three sides of the dough, then flip the whole dough ball over. Let rest 10 minutes, then repeat two more times. After the last folding, cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight, or up to 3 days. These folds may seem a bit fussy but achieve the dual purpose of incorporating some air pockets into the dough, and firming it up without using additional flour.
About 1 1/2 to 2 hours before you'd like to bake (depending on how warm your kitchen is), take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature — about 45 minutes to take the chill off. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or brush them heavily with olive oil. Gently divide the dough into two balls (they might be a bit more like blobs than balls), and place them on the prepared sheets. Let sit 10 minutes to relax, then, with oiled or wet hands, use your fingertips to sort of pat-and-push the dough out into 9-inch circles from the inside out, dimpling them without totally compressing them (if they resist, you can pat them out a little, let the dough rest 5 to 10 minutes, then pat them out a little more and repeat as needed — it's important that you press the dough out to at least this diameter, otherwise it will be too thick to cook properly). Let rise for 30 to 45 minutes (depending on the heat of your kitchen, and how warm/risen the dough was when you started working). While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
When the dough has risen, scatter the blackberries and rosemary over the top, drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and scatter on the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons coarse salt. (That's 1 tablespoon of oil and 1 teaspoon of salt per focaccia.) Place the trays in the oven, then turn down the heat to 450. Bake for 20 minutes, until the focaccia has cooked to a golden brown (it may seem a little underdone in some parts, especially around the berries, but as long as there are no large uncolored spots you'll be fine). Let cool slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature (ideally within a few hours for optimum deliciousness).
Recipe: The Huck Finn (Gin Cocktail With Blackberries, Cucumber And Basil Syrup)
This recipe is adapted from one created by Alex Moriarty and Tyler Harvey for Canal House books. The fresh-tasting cucumber water and herbal basil-infused simple syrup work well with gin, and the sweet-tart blackberries pull it all together. The simple syrup yields more than is needed for the drink, but you can use leftovers in other recipes.
Makes 4 drinks
For The Basil Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup fresh basil leaves
For The Drink
1 pound cucumbers (about 2 average-sized), peeled
1 cup fresh blackberries
4 sprigs fresh mint
8 ounces gin
8 ounces soda water (optional)
1 lime, quartered
For the basil simple syrup, heat the sugar and water together in a small saucepan over medium heat. Swirl the pan to wash down any sugar clinging to the sides, cover and gently boil until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the basil leaves to the syrup, cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Let the syrup steep until it is cool. Remove and discard the basil leaves.
For the rest of the drink, cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and use a teaspoon to scrape out and discard the seeds. Cut the cucumbers into large pieces and process them in a food processor until pureed. Strain the pulp through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Discard the pulp. You should end up with about 1 cup cucumber water.
To make the drinks, put the blackberries (reserving eight for garnish) in the bottom of a large cocktail shaker, sturdy glass or Mason jar. Add a few sprigs of the mint. Use a wooden spoon to muddle the berries and mint, crushing them together. Add lots of ice, 1/3 cup of the basil simple syrup, the gin and the cucumber water. Shake or stir the cocktail until very cold and well-mixed, then taste and add more syrup if desired. Strain into glasses either over ice or not, and serve with a splash of cold bubbly water, if desired. Serve each drink with a wedge of lime and the reserved blackberries.
Recipe: Salmon With Blackberry Creme Fraiche Sauce
This is adapted from a recipe by Courtney Sproule, who runs Portland's Din Din supper club. It has a delicious complexity despite being simple to make. Tangy-yet-rich creme fraiche pairs with the slightly anise flavor of tarragon and punchy blackberries, with a bit of depth from shallots and brightness from white wine. It's an easy way to wow the guests at your next dinner party.
Makes 2 servings
Two 6-ounce salmon pieces (pinbones removed)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 shallot, halved and sliced into 1/8-inch half-moons
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 large handful blackberries
1 small handful fresh tarragon, minced
Zest of 1/4 lemon
Salt and white pepper to taste
Cook the salmon in any gentle way (steaming, poaching, oven roasting, for example) until it is done to your liking. Don't overcook.
While the salmon is cooking, melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. Add the shallot along with a pinch of salt, and cook until soft but not colored, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium, add the wine and bring to a simmer until it reduces by two-thirds, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the creme fraiche and cook at a gentle simmer until it thickens and reduces by half. Add the blackberries, and let cook a minute until they warm and soften, then add the tarragon and lemon zest. Turn off the heat, and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve the salmon with the sauce.
Recipe: Sweet Corn And Blackberry Ice Pops
Corn may seem an odd choice for a frozen dessert, but its creamy sweetness works surprisingly well (and also provides a great backdrop for the tart blackberries).
Makes 4 to 5 standard (3-ounce) ice pops
2 ears sweet corn
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/3 cup sugar, plus additional for the blackberries
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heaping 1/2 cup blackberries
Cut the kernels off of the cob, and place in a saucepan. Hack the cobs up in a few pieces and add them as well, along with the half-and-half, the sugar and salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer for a minute or so, until the corn softens and turns a darker yellow. Turn off the heat, add the vanilla and let the mixture steep for an hour, transferring to the refrigerator as it cools (you want to wait a minimum of an hour to let the mixture infuse, but you can shelve it in the fridge for longer if needed).
While the corn mixture is steeping and cooling, rinse the blackberries and mash them with a fork or potato masher. Sweeten to taste with a spoonful or two of sugar — the corn mixture will be sweet as well, so you want the blackberries to be a bit tart for contrast.
After the corn mixture has steeped, fish out the cobs and discard. Puree the remaining mixture in a blender, then strain through a fine sieve, pressing to force the last bits through (you may have to clear the strainer a few times to get rid of the corn solids). Place the corn mixture in a container with a spout, and pour an inch of it in the bottom of Popsicle molds. Top with a spoonful of the sweetened blackberry puree, then repeat the process until the molds are filled (leaving enough head space for them to expand).
If you have the kind of molds with stick handles attached, simply freeze until solid. Otherwise, let freeze half an hour, insert Popsicle sticks into the semi-frozen mixture and freeze completely.