Category Archives: Berry Picking

Just a Berry-Picking Fool

If you wonder where I’ve been lately, I’ve been parenting, and in between that, I’ve been writing, traveling, parenting, berry picking, writing, berry picking, and, wait-for-it!, writing.

But summer is ending here in Fairbanks. Okay, really, once the leaves start turning, summer has officially ended in my mind. So what if fall isn’t “official” until the solstice? That’s just one of the things that doesn’t apply to Alaska. Summer begins to end around the first week of August, when the rains really hit.

This year was no exception. Rains came sweeping in with August, along with the Tanana Valley State Fair held in Fairbanks. Then we had a few warm summery days throughout August, including a nice past week. But we’ve had our fair share of rain, and now the trees are turning, and it’s clear that there is no reclaiming the summer.

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Although the berries in this photo aren’t (to my knowledge) edible, this toadstool was just too perfect to ignore!

I pretty much missed the blueberries this year. I haven’t really picked them before because blueberries aren’t my favorite. I had planned on going with a friend of mine, and our plans got postponed two weeks in a row. So by the time we got out there, the berries were pretty much gone. Although I found a few patches of blueberries in my backyard, they only contained six berries. No, I’m not joking. Blueberries: 6.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

So about the time I realized I missed the blueberry picking, I started recognizing the little bushes with their maple-esque leaves and realizing that they were already turning red. Those happen to be highbush cranberries. And although it was only the beginning of August, they were ripe on the bush and starting to fall off!

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you're looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

My berry picking instincts kicked into high gear, and I immediately began to forget about blueberries and move on to the highbush cranberries. Although they smell like sweat socks, they make an absolutely fantastic meat sauce. (Okay, my hubby calls it “sock sauce,” but don’t let that fool you. He actually helped me pick some berries so I could make more this year!)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year's new, larger sieve worked like magic!

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year’s new, larger sieve worked like magic! And yes, they really are that red–no photo touchup here!

Last year, despite having enough berries to do a full recipe of “sock sauce” as my husband so endearingly calls it, I did only a half recipe. I hadn’t made it before–hadn’t really canned before at all–and I didn’t want to waste all the berries on a recipe that no one wanted or that I ruined for lack of experience. However, after sharing my attempt with Hubby and friends, it was received well by all. So this year, I’ve already canned one recipe full, and have enough to do at least one more full recipe (which takes about 12 cups of berries!).

After you process the berries, you're left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it's about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It's quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember.

After you process the berries, you’re left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it’s about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It’s quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember. Oh, and make sure to ventilate your house well. It stinks.

Last year I was learning canning for a few reasons. One of them was my return to Alaska, and my attempt to make the best of a difficult situation. The other was simply a desire to do something. I really struggled last year after the birth of my son, and coming up with little projects that didn’t require a lot of time, that I could possibly do with him, and that made me feel slightly productive, was my way of coping in some small way.

I’m glad I taught myself this little skill. It’s really quite simple, and the benefit is a Christmas gift and tasty sauce that I can share with those I love.

Spring Canning

Oh, that’s right. You read that right–I don’t follow the book. I can in the spring.

Well, not in this at least. Let’s just say “canning season” didn’t fall at a good time for me last year. I managed to do a little bit, but on most days with my infant son, it felt completely overwhelming and beyond my ability to deal with.

So when Hubby gave me an afternoon off parenting duties the past week, I took an hour or so to can some of the lingonberries that I picked with my son last fall.

Lingonberries

Lingonberries

I’ve never canned lingonberries before–well, let me rephrase that, as I haven’t done much canning ever. I’ve never had an interest in canning lingonberries before. Usually I use lingonberries in my mother’s cranberry cream cheese bread recipe, but I haven’t made that this year, and it’s relatively unhealthy, and usually we use lingonberry sauce for lefsa over the holidays. (So, really, I should have canned these in the fall when I bought them and then we would have had homemade lingonberry sauce for the lefsa. Oh well.)

Regardless, I finally got my act together and did some canning the past week. The lingonberries were surprisingly simple to can, as I just made a simple jam type sauce with them. Basically a lot of sugar plus a bit of water and a lot of lingonberries cooked for awhile on the stovetop, then water bath canned.

Lotta sugar hiding those berries...

Lotta sugar hiding those beautiful berries…

For 8 cups of berries I got about 4.25 pints of sauce. The extra I canned anyway and put in the fridge to taste-test. I like it. It’s a lot denser than any of the store bought lingonberry jam/sauce that I’ve had, but it actually tastes all right on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (That’s probably an unusual taste testing method, but…we were out of other jelly.)

The finished product.

The finished product.

So now this Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’ll have lingonberry sauce for our lefsa! I’m actually rather excited about that… might be worth making some lefsa before then…

High-Bush Cranberry Sauce

2014 yield: 14 cups of highbush cranberries!

2014 yield: 14 cups of highbush cranberries!

So 2014 was a good cranberry year. After putting my cranberries in the freezer for a couple of months, I finally got around to making some cranberry sauce over the past few weeks. I spent a couple of hours measuring out the berries, boiling them until they burst, running them through a food mill to get rid of the seeds and skins, and then boiling them down with spices and onion until they reached the consistency I wanted.

It was a fun way to spend an afternoon, a simple recipe to follow, and quick to can.

Crushing the cranberries through a food mill.

Crushing the cranberries through a food mill.

One word of warning to those unfamiliar with these berries: High-bush cranberries are smelly.

When you boil them, crush them, and boil them again, it smells up the ENTIRE house. And your husband may come home and ask why the house smells like a man’s locker room.

Spices at the ready!

Spices at the ready!

Bake it down...

Bake it down…

Recipe:

Spiced Cranberry Sauce

12 cups fresh high-bush cranberries
3 cups onion, minced
1 cup water
2 cups white vinegar
4 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon celery salt or celery seed
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper

1. Cook the cranberries in the water until soft, then put through a food mill or a sieve. Discard the seeds.

2. If you haven’t already, prepare enough jars for 3 pints of sauce by sterilizing them in hot water for at least 10 minutes.

3. In a large pot, combine the onions, vinegar, sugar, spices, celery salt/seed, salt, and pepper with the cranberries and boil until the mixture thickens to the desired consistency.

4. Once the cranberries and spices have been boiled down, pour the sauce into sterilized jars and seal fingertip-tight.

5. Process the sealed jars in a water bath for 15 minutes, or adjusted for altitude.

Even though these berries, raw, have the odor of sweaty socks, with these ingredients, the berries become a wonderful complement to red meats.

The strong flavor complements game meat excellently, but also accompanies steak quite well. Even our friends who don’t like steak sauces loved this sauce!

Here to Stay

Well, I think this snow is here to stay.

On Saturday, Fairbanks was dumped on, and again on Sunday, we had another five inches or so, to total about a foot now.

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How much snow can pile up on the porch railing? I guess we’ll see…

The roads are icy and the high temperatures are around freezing. Good thing they aren’t lower, or roads would be even worse.

I took my almost seven month old son on our first snow walk yesterday. I wore my Columbia boots (not great for walking, but with a foot of snow, I couldn’t very well wear tennis shoes), and he rode in the Ergo carrier in his little Seahawks snow fleece. There were a few dicey moments where I slipped on the loop around our house. But we needed to get out. The house gets awfully small when you can’t go somewhere, when roads are bad and the baby is young.

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My chokecherry tree still has leaves! (And some berries.) I hope it weathers through the winter all right, as it’s never a good sign when snow piles on a tree that hasn’t lost its leaves yet.

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Poor chokecherry tree… I can sympathize with its not being ready for winter; I’m not ready for winter either.

While on our walk we saw one car broken down/abandoned on the road, but otherwise no real evidence of accidents. The first real snow always brings several accidents along with it. Every year people have to remember how to drive on the snow and ice. And every year we have new military people here who have never driven on roads like this before. You can always tell those ones–they are the ones driving like roads are dry, and you can often find them in the ditch a short distance later.

Everyone has ended up in the ditch at some point here, or slid through a red light or stop sign because the roads are too slick and your tires too bald to stop on time. The trick is to plan for it. Have an escape route and know it for those moments when you begin to skid. And turn into the skid. Most importantly, just drive a bit more cautiously, especially turning. Do a brake check to test the iciness (make sure no one is behind you first). And if you aren’t comfortable on the roads, get off them. Don’t drive far below the speed limit, because no one else is expecting that, and you’ll be a danger to both yourself and others on the road.

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Although I find the snow-laden trees pretty, this is a temporary beauty that lasts only until the wind brushes the snow off. And it lasts around seven or eight months here…so the beauty of snow quickly wears off for me.

So while I sit indoors, occasionally glancing out the window and pretending I don’t see white everywhere, I steal a nap time to write this blog and upload my photos. Eventually I suppose I’ll have to face the winter and decide I need to pick up some winter sport or something. What could it be? Snowshoeing? It’ll have to be something to be done with an infant… Probably just playing in the snow this year and getting out of doors for ten minutes at a time. Maybe next year will be the time for winter sport exploration. Any suggestions? I still need to figure out the best way to bundle up my son for extended time out of doors. He weathered the walk fine yesterday, but I always worry that he’s not warm enough (even though I was sweating in my hoodie!).

The snow is beautiful...at first.

The snow is beautiful…at first.

It’s really only in Alaska (and perhaps other cold weather states/locations) where the temperatures dip below freezing and you still see people walking outside in T-shirts and jeans, no gloves, but perhaps boots on. While I attended UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks), there was a student there who never wore a jacket. He’d wear short sleeves, shorts, boots, a hat, and gloves–even in -40F. Now that is a bit extreme, as if something happened and he was trapped out of doors, he’d lose a lot of body heat with his exposed skin and could easily come away with frostbite or hypothermia. It’s one thing to run out of doors for a minute dressed like that, but quite another to willingly foray into the cold up here in such a foolish manner. (I think he did it to stand out and be the talk of campus, really.)

I must remind myself to look for the beauty in snow...at least for the first six months or so...

I must remind myself to look for the beauty in snow…at least for the first six months or so…

Well, the baby will soon wake, and I’ve accomplished very little this nap time. I suppose it was a mental health break nap time for me, one I dearly needed after the past couple of night’s lack of sleep.

Alaska Licensed

I always find it mildly frustrating the differences between state laws. While I understand that states can give its inhabitants more freedom than Federal laws, certain differences in laws, such as traffic laws or laws governing drivers license renewals, for instance, always strike me as odd.

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This was me at DMV, reading Charles Dickens. Because what else do you do at DMV?

Case in point: when I moved to Washington State almost five years ago, getting my Alaskan driver’s license turned into a Washington driver’s license involved simply sitting at DMV and bringing in a piece of paper (a letter or bill addressed to me) proving that I had an address in Washington State. I was immediately issued the license. Here in Alaska, if you haven’t had an Alaskan driver’s license issued within the past year (e.g. it was expired for at least a year), you must retake the written driver’s test of 20 questions that come randomly out of the DMV driver’s manual. Now I have a temporary license and will get my permanent one in two weeks via mail.

Either way doesn’t really bother me. Having to retake a test, although annoying, is reasonable, as road laws can vary slightly state to state. But it’s interesting to me that one state doesn’t require a written test, just a valid license from another state, while this state requires the written test.

Regardless, on this wintry day, where I woke up to both a screaming baby and a light dusting of snow, I am now officially licensed to drive in Alaska.

I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t have to take a road test, although the snow hasn’t stuck and was gone by mid-morning. The first snow in Fairbanks (and probably any another Alaskan town) brings its share of traffic accidents and foolish drivers.

I’ve been trying hard to live in denial about the approaching snow though, ignoring the forecasts of snow (I mean, how often are the weathermen wrong?) and instead getting out of doors and soaking up the feeble rays of winter sun.

I spent this weekend enjoying fantastic times with amazing friends. I taught a beautiful woman who has lived in Alaska for ten years what lingonberries are and how to pick them (not that it’s hard!). But we had a great time in the woods, trying to ignore the late-season bugs that fell in our hair and down our backs, and trying to pretend we both aren’t in our thirties with bad knees as we trekked around squatting in the woods. (Let me assure you, my knee was swollen the next day.)

These friends of ours are moving to Outside in two short weeks. They have lived in Anchorage for the last eight or so years, and, of course, they leave for the outside world as we return to this small town of Alaska. It was bittersweet to see them this weekend, knowing that it would be our last in-person visit for who knows how long. But it’s always harder to be the one left than the one leaving. For the one leaving, everything changes. You start fresh and have something to look forward to–many new people and new experiences. For those left behind, nothing changes except a gaping hole where your friend used to be. I know we are the kind of friend that will see each other again, but it is certainly sad to see them go, especially so soon after our return to Alaska.

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A delectable dessert our friends introduced us to: espresso poured over coffee. Um, YUM!!

The First Frost

If I haven’t posted lately, it’s because several things have been happening at once. 1. It’s started snowing and more snow is in the forecast. 2. We got our first frost on the 21st. 3. I’ve been madly picking lingonberries (i.e. low-bush cranberries). 4. I’ve been unpacking. (One day, I do hope to be done with number four.) 5. I’ve been on the hunt for winter clothes for my baby.

The snow, thankfully, did not stick. But I was concerned for a little while there, as the flurries were fast and furious. There are still some trees with leaves on them, and snow now would not be kind to those trees. But those snows delivered the cold temperatures that brought the first hard frost to my backyard overnight, which is what I was waiting for in order to begin picking lingonberries.

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Have you ever seen anything more gorgeous than berries ripe for the picking?

Now, every nap time, I am to be found either outside picking more berries, or inside washing, sorting, and freezing berries. Berry picking is backbreaking work. And the actual berry picking is only a part of that. It’s nearly as time consuming (especially with an infant) to remove all the leaves, stems, bugs, and other debris out of the berries once you’ve picked them.

But, the carrot hanging down in front of me is all the things I can make with my lingonberries (and high-bush cranberries and chokecherries). My mother has a killer cream cheese lingonberry bread recipe, which I have fond memories of growing up with. It was a yearly tradition to wait for the first frost, then go out behind our property to a nearby lingonberry patch and pick until our hands were numb, or our bags were full.

I’ve missed that bread since leaving Alaska.

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Our backyard is covered in these little gems.

So about four hours of squatting in the leaves, kneeling on the ground, digging in leaves, sticks, and other debris, staining my jeans and hands with cranberry juice, chapping my knuckles until they bleed, and allowing my son to nap in the backpack carrier, led to about two gallon bags full of lingonberries in the freezer.

To someone from “Outside,” this may not seem like a lot. But lingonberries are much smaller than their Thanksgiving cranberry cousins. Perhaps 1/3 to 1/4 the size of the typical Ocean Spray fresh cranberries you find in Fred Meyer in November. And oh, so much better. It’s true that small fruits often pack more flavor, and these are flavorful little berries.

Although the demise of fall and the snow in the forecast makes me incredibly sad, I try to focus on the benefits of this first frost. The lingonberries are quickly falling off their stems and rotting, and so I return to the crisp days out of doors to pick some more, ignoring the pain in my knees and back so that I can stock up my berry supply. Because once that snow falls, it’s not leaving for a very long time.

 

Berry Picking

One of the nice things I’m finding with this house we just bought (literally got the keys September 3, 2014), is that there are a TON of berries in our backyard. Of course, this means that it’s pretty much a wild backyard, and when our son grows up, it will be hard for him to go outside and kick a soccer ball around or even throw a ball for the dog.

But right now, I am enjoying the plethora of berries. Since we moved back to Alaska at such an unfortunate time, when the leaves are falling off the trees and the short summer is already at its demise, all I tend to see is the death of summer and the quickly approaching harsh winter. Every day for the past week or so, since I discovered the mass of high-bush cranberries we now own, I have packed up my son in the baby backpack and headed out of doors for at least 30 minutes to pick berries. Or until my back starts to hurt or said son begins to cry.

High-bush Cranberries, some I missed!

High-bush Cranberries, some I missed!

To be honest, I’ve never really done a whole lot with high-bush cranberries, and I have no idea what to do with them now. All I know is that I washed, sorted, and destemmed about four cups of them yesterday in about four hours. (Thanks to my son for that one, too.) But that’s okay. Berries freeze. Because really, what all this berry picking amounts to, is the fact that I may have to wait until next year to get enough to do anything with them. Or enlist help before it frosts over.

Although, after the first frost, that means low-bush cranberries are ripe. And, even though the leaves have fallen, making them harder to find, these lingonberries are well worth the effort. My mother has a killer cranberry cream cheese bread recipe, and it calls for a whole lot of lingonberries. So, if you can’t find me for the next couple of weeks, that either means I’m out picking berries, or in the kitchen canning/baking/cooking with berries, or I’ve been snowed in (but let us hope for one of the two former options–I’m casting my vote for a late, short winter this year).

Lingonberries are the deeper red berries, almost a merlot color, in the forefront of this photo. I can’t remember what the other, oranger kind are, except that they are poisonous.

Lingonberries, almost ripe for the picking!

Lingonberries, almost ripe for the picking!

But it’s not just cranberries that I’m in a picking frenzy over! The original owners of this house planted about five or six chokecherry trees around the property, and I’m delighted! I grew up with a chokecherry tree in my backyard about fifteen miles away from where the house we purchased, and it’s delightful to be reminded of watching that chokecherry tree grow into the beast it now is (and my “new” little chokecherries have nothing on that behemoth of a tree).

These ones were out of reach, or I would have snatched them too.

These ones were out of reach, or I would have snatched them too.

Although it's a bit late to be picking chokecherries (I think), the original owners of this house planted about five chokecherry trees, much to my berry-picking pleasure!

Although it’s a bit late to be picking chokecherries (I think), the original owners of this house planted about five chokecherry trees, much to my berry-picking pleasure!

And since I’ve distracted myself long enough from washing and destemming berries or otherwise being productive, that’s it for today. At least until the mountain comes out and I manage to get a photo. (And I’m really bumming over the fact that I left my camera downstairs when a golden eagle flew by my window while writing this post.)