SARA BIR BRINGS some of the wild into everyday reach.
Most of the foraged fruits she cooks with can be gathered near your own home and cooked in your own kitchen, whether you live in a zone of plums or pawpaws, Key limes or quince.
“I started foraging because I am nosy and cheap,” the chef and recipe developer wrote in her new book, “The Fruit Forager’s Companion” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $29.95).
Sara Bir will prepare foraged foods at a talk at 6:30 p.m. July 25 at The Book Larder, 4252 Fremont Ave. N. Admission is free, but RSVP at booklarder.com.
Bir, a native Ohioan who spent some years in California and the Northwest, was lured into foraging after returning to her small hometown, “where Midwest meets Appalachia.” The move from Portland with her husband and young daughter wasn’t always easy for the Culinary Institute of America graduate. Ohio had so many things “that had barely changed since I was a kid,” with none of the supercharged mountains or ocean coastlines she had come to love in the West.
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But, walking in the woods one day, she came across a pawpaw, a tropically perfumed fruit that “confounds the sense and defies expectations, in the most enchanting of ways.” It tasted like nothing she’d seen in Ohio before. She was hooked.
The foraging obsession grew from there, encompassing mulberries, crabapples, sumac, maypops and mayhaws, hackberries that “make more sense if you think of them as burly seeds instead of berries.”
Not all foraged goods require faraway field trips; she tracked local trees on errands as routine as the daily walk to her daughter’s school. Foraging in public spaces made it easier to appreciate her own surroundings instead of longing for what she might find elsewhere, easier to see herself as one part of a bigger ecosystem.
It’s a habit that could take strong root in Seattle, a city unusually rich in public orchards and street trees, where gardeners share fragile figs from their own harvests and pause to gather scrumptiously sweet Himalayan blackberries before tearing out the invasive vines. We have City Fruit here, a nonprofit that exists to help save fruit that might otherwise go to waste (it harvested more than 55,000 pounds in 2016 alone, donating more than half to food banks and pressing nine tons of “ugly” apples and crabapples into a fundraising cider).
Bir offers some practical guidelines for foraging: Is it safe? Is it legal? (“When in doubt, pick up the phone or knock on a door and ask.”) Is it for sure what you think it is? Is it morally OK? (Don’t take too much of an uncommon plant!) Is it ready to pick? She also has plenty of guidance and recipes for dealing with the peculiarities of foraged fruit — uncertain quantities, variable quality, types that aren’t bred for mass-market success.
But, as sharp and sensitive about feelings as flavors, Bir also knows that foraging touches something more than practicality or frugality or even sustenance.
It’s made her more neighborly, she writes, more outgoing, able to literally “walk the walk” of sustainability. More open to the parallel universes hidden in our own neighborhoods, as surely as Narnia behind the wardrobe or Wonderland down a rabbit hole.
“Think of the plants you’ve walked past dozens of times without even taking notice. Once you do notice them, you are a portal to a new realm. They are your looking glass.”
Buckwheat Berry Buckle
For the streusel
½ cup rolled oats
¼ cup buckwheat flour
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and at room temperature
For the cake:
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 cups huckleberries (or substitute blueberries, mulberries, blackberries, raspberries)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and set the rack in the middle. Grease a 9×9-inch pan.
2. Make the streusel: Combine the oats, buckwheat, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg and butter in a medium bowl. With your fingertips, work the mixture until it’s crumbly. Set aside.
3. Make the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together the ingredients from the flour through the salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until lightened, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each, and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk. Fold in half of the berries.
4. Spread the batter in a prepared pan. Scatter the remaining berries over the top, then the streusel. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before serving. Covered with plastic wrap, the buckle will keep for up to 2 days.
From “The Fruit Forager’s Companion” by Sara Bir