Friday, September 7, 2012

Reconsidering Salal

Salal brush

Late August has to be the best time for northwest berry foragers. Food fell in my lap all month. I picked gallons of wild blackberries and red huckleberries, treating my family to pies and cobblers. Blackberries and huckleberries are familiar to me, of course. But gathering Salal berries was a new adventure. Up until now, I’ve never appreciated the brushy crap that entangles feet plodding a trail, making it impossible to stalk deer with any kind of stealth. But this changed for me this year. It was love at first bite – well, almost.

Salal brush lines forest floors in the Northwest and invades my flowerbeds. I never liked the stuff and until recently, failed to see the plant as a food source. Even if you are not from the northwest, you’ve probably seen the plant before. Salal bows are those leathery, oval-shaped leaves used as greenery in commercial floral arrangements.

I first learned about the Salal floral industry while teaching English as a second language in Shelton, Washington. Many of my students were brush pickers. Brush picking is miserable and wet labor, but it’s also controversial and sometimes dangerous. Salal is cut on public lands by migrant laborors, under the charge of a salal dealer. Some dealers are shady, acting more like pimps than middlemen engaging in the cut flower business. Dealers may become territorial and have been known to take advantage of undocumented folks. An undocumented worker has little recourse, if any, for work-related abuse. My work in Shelton tainted my view of Salal.
It’s been years and several boyfriends ago since my last delivery of a dozen roses. But I remember the sprig of Salal. I plucked it from the bouquet and tossed it in the trash.

I assumed the hairy-looking black berries dangling on tendrils were poisonous. After researching the red huckleberry this summer, I came across enlightening information. Not only are Salal berries edible, but they taste alright and possess admirable culinary qualities. I was most interested in the berry as a natural source of pectin. Pectin is a mixture of polysaccharides found in the cell wall of plants. In the culinary world, it is used as a thickening agent and may purchased in powder or liquid form. I do not like purchasing pectin packets because it adds expense to the final product. But some berries and other fruit spreads require the extra pectin boost to jell. 
blackberry-Salal jam

Salal berries are ridiculously sweet and require a lower amount of sugar to make jam, jelly, relish, or chutney. When making blackberry jam, the sugar to berry ratio is about one to one. I experimented with Salal berries and created a similar recipe to the red huckleberry jam I made in July. But this time I cut the sugar down by two-thirds. The experiment turned out delicious and jelled almost immediately upon reaching the boiling stage.

Killer Salal Jam
·         4 cups of berries
·         1/2 cup raw sugar
·         1 tablespoon cinnamon
·         Shredded orange peel of a large orange
·         Pulp and juice of the large orange
·         1/4 cup lime juice
·         1 cup red wine
·         1/4 cup fig balsamic

Thrilled with the taste and success of Salal jam, I modified my blackberry jam recipe to include 1 part Salal to three parts blackberry and a third less sugar. I would have used more Salal and consequently less sugar, but blackberries were ever-abundant and easy to pick. Salal berries, like huckleberries, are tedious to gather.

Shortly after the mixture reached boiling stage, the Salal pectin kicked in. I ladled the jam, now black as night, into crystalline canning jars and processed for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. The recipe below produced fifteen 8-ounce jars.   

Blackberry- Salal Jam
·         12 cups blackberries
·          4 cups Salal berries
·         1 cups fresh lime juice
·         8 teaspoons Saigon cinnamon
·         8 cups raw sugar

It’s September now. School is about to begin. The last flush of blackberries clings to the brambles, begging to be picked. Nasty worms, white and chubby like maggots, infest the remaining Salal berries. Kitchen cabinets and linoleum, sticky from jam sessions, want for a final summer scrub. Mason jars line the pantry. Tomatoes, pickled peppers, heirloom pizza sauce, tomatillo-peach salsa, green-tomato relish, vegetable soup, salsa verde, spaghetti sauce and jam of every color bow the shelves. Jam, jam everywhere an no shelf-space to spare! There is enough jam to survive a zombie apocalypse. Can you guess what the relatives are getting for Christmas?