Monday, August 18, 2008

My Chokecherry Adventure

This has not been a good fruit year for Northern Colorado, and for our yard in particular. Last year we were up to our ears in Siberian peaches, plums of several kinds, and apples. My fruit dryer was busy for weeks putting away all that harvest. We gave away over 1000 pounds of apples from our three trees.

But this year, we have just a few apples, just a few peaches, just a few plums. So my attention turned to... ta-da.... chokecherries. Since we live in the valley of the Big Thompson river, chokecherries grow wild here, along with wild plums. Chokecherries seem impervious to heat, cold, drought, downpours, insects, and hail, always producing a crop. And they make enough for the birds, the bears, the rodents, and the occasional jelly-making human.

Problem is, I just don't like jelly. DH doesn't either. Since I have gluten intolerance, we don't have much bread around, and wouldn't put jelly on it anyway. It's easy to make jelly from chokecherries, and it is excellent jelly. Just collect, simmer 15 minutes, and let drip in a muslin bag for the juice. Sugar and a little pectin, and you have it. (Obviously this is not a recipe, but recipes for chokecherry jelly are readily available.)

So, I think, what about chokecherry leather? I have trays with my fruit dryer that make leather, and I've made apple and pumpkin leather in the past. I picked about 2 quarts of berries, removed the stems and the bird-pecked ones, and put in a saucepan with a little water. Then I simmered them for about 15 minutes, until soft. (You need to cook chokecherries, as the pits are slightly poisonous.)

Next, I tried to put them through the food mill. Bad idea. The pits are large compared to the size of the berry, and the food mill really did not like the pits. In fact, some of the pits broke into little sharp pieces.

Food mill didn't work very well, so I tried rubbing them through a sieve. It was very difficult to remove the pulp from the pit by this means, so I gave it up as a lost cause.

The original food mill approach did give me about 6 cups of juice and pulp. So I decided to sweeten it just a little, using healthful local honey...... wrong. Honey is hygroscopic, meaning that it doesn't dry, and in fact can absorb moisture from the air. So after hours of drying, I had a thin and very sticky paste stuck to the trays. On the good side, it was absolutely delicious, although it had a few little sharp bits from the pits.

As I discovered, cooked chokecherry juice and pulp is plenty sweet enough for leather without adding any sweetener, but if you must sweeten it, be sure to use non-local non-healthy sugar :-(

My original inspiration was an American Indian recipe I came across. They would collect the berries, and pound them very thoroughly, breaking up the shell of the pit, and freeing the kernel inside. Then they would pat it into thin cakes and dry in the sun. This seems to be enough heat to remove any slightly poisonous problems with the pits. The little cakes were considered a treat, although you had to spit out the numerous small sharp fragments of the shell. The pits are highly nutritious with protein and oil, so the little cakes were good wintertime food.

After having made my attempts at doing something besides jelly and little dried cakes, I looked on the internet to see if I was just nuts, or if somebody else had some ideas. And this is what I found: Chokecherry.

The author is a real fan of the chokecherry and has a number of ideas for using them, in addition to information on growth habits and identification. Not only does he make chokecherry leather, he LOVES it.

As he mentions, you can also just make juice and can it (by boiling-water process), without adding the sugar and making jelly. I can imagine that the juice would be good with applesauce. Or you could make a light syrup (honey WOULD work for this) for pancakes, or for refreshing summer drinks or desserts. A little creativity, and chokecherries are a tasty and free addition to the food supply.

From previous years, I know that the wild plums, when allowed to get fully ripe, are absolutely delicious. They are small, and turn a pretty pink when ripe, though there is some color variation between one shrub and another. They should be soft, and nearly falling off the bush.

If you are a jelly lover, they make excellent jelly and jam (no pit worries on these; the pits are big enough to not cause problems). I like to eat them fresh. I have pitted and frozen them. I have also pitted and dried them; they don't take too long because they are small. In the winter, you can stew up the dried wild plums with some water and honey for an hour or so and make Compote (a delicious dish of stewed dried fruit, decorated with heavy cream). Or I can visualize the cooked pulp in ice cream or with other fruits in a cobbler or crisp.

You will know if they are not ripe enough; they are hard and unbelievably tart. I have wondered if one could make umeboshi plums by salting our wild plums, but I haven't tried it.

At any rate, it's fun to see what can be made of our prolific and hardy native fruits. They are the taste of the foothills of Northern Colorado, long before the settlers brought their fruit trees and vegetables. Happy gathering!


Anonymous said...


A China Cap, chinoise, works marvelously with the chokecherries. I juiced quite a large volume of them for jelly through mine.

Lynnet said...

Do you mean one of the conical strainers that people often use for tomatoes? If not, then please describe the China Cap utensil. We've got More Chokecherries on our property, and I should get out there and pick them while they're at their peak.

Thanks for the comment.


Linda said...

My grandmother's chokecherry recipe is a classic. It calls for 12 lbs chokecherries, 2 quarts cold water, and 3 oz. tartaric acid (usually available from beer brewers). The choke cherries are put through a meat grinder to grind up the pits. This is important! Add the cold water, and the tartaric acid, which will pull the very strong cherry\almond-like flavor from the pits! Let stand for 48 hours. Strain through muslin fabric, 2-3 times. To each 1 cup juice, and 1 cup sugar. I prefer a bit less sugar. Bottle and cap and store in fridge, or can to preserve. This uncooked syrup can be used to make jelly. The taste is so different from any other process that my husband just won't try any other choke cherry recipe--even though he gets blisters putting them through our hand-turned meat grinder!

Cyd Viscous said...

Linda was right on. You can also simmer the chokecherries with pits until soft. Cool and load up in muslin or even cheesecloth and hang above a large pot for 24 hrs. to receive the juice. You need several lbs. of choke cherries. Proceed to make syrup, jelly, or juice. I liver in Northern New Mexico and there are a lot of wild trees here. Chokecherries are called "capulín" which is what the wine produced from the "capulín" is called, but that's another recipe. J. Sturgis