All the Autumn Olive, Week Ending 9/20/2020

I thought this year was going to be another bust for autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Last year, I blamed a late frost for the poor harvest for both autumn olive and spicebush (Lindera benzoin). And on my most recent trip into the woods, where I found ripening spicebush berries, the autumn olive shrubs were mostly bare.

I mean, we should be happy, right? Autumn olive is a very invasive species, worming its way into ecosystems and displacing native Maryland plants. If the weather keeps them from producing berries, it’s helping slow their spread. A single autumn olive plant can produce a lot of fruit.

But it’s also a tasty treat for humans (as well as birds and wildlife), and I had plans for those berries. I’m looking for local substitutes for imported foods – even if just imported from across the US, like almonds and pomegranate juice – to cut down on my carbon footprint. Your food choices are one of the biggest, and easiest, things to change if you’re concerned about your individual impact on the environment. And let’s face it; the supply chain “challenges” we’ve seen this year may continue or get worse, so finding local substitutes for staples is a smart strategy.

Finally, I stumbled on a thicket of autumn olives covered in fruit!

Ripe, red autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) berries hanging from branches
Ripe, red autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) berries hanging from branches

As always, be on guard for non-edible lookalikes! Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is another invasive species in our area which can be confused with autumn olive. It inhabits the same ecological niches, is also a shrub, blooms around the same time, and features red berries in the fall. These berries, however, are toxic and may cause severe stomach upset if eaten.

Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) berries - don't confuse these for autumn olive!
Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) berries – don’t confuse these for autumn olive!

Note how the honeysuckle berries stick up from the branch, rather than hanging like autumn olive. They also lack the speckled skin of autumn olive berries.

Different autumn olive shrubs will have berries with different flavors. Some may be more sour, sweet, or astringent. The flavors can also change as the season progresses. Harvesting berries from multiple plants helps balance out the flavor profile.

A cleaned out milk jug makes a great berry container
A cleaned out milk jug makes a great berry container

I thought about making a batch of autumn olive ketchup (yes, that is a popular use for the berries), but I have plenty of tomatoes this summer if I wanted go the homemade ketchup route. Besides, ketchup is a well established use for autumn olives. I wanted something new and different.

What I really wanted was something like pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses can be purchased at international markets, and is featured in many Middle Eastern recipes. It can enhance sweet or sour flavors in salad dressings, dips, meat marinades, and desserts. You can make your own pomegranate molasses from commercially available juice, although that comes all the way from California. While I could plant and grown my own – cold hardy pomegranates do exist – I would rather use a locally abundant free food that grows with no effort on my part as a substitute for pomegranates.

If, in fact, it works as a substitute.

I started with this recipe for pomegranate molasses, realizing of course that autumn olive isn’t exactly like pomegranate juice. The texture is more like pulp, rather than juice. It’s thicker, with solids in it.

After sorting and washing, I had slightly over eight cups of autumn olive berries. I simmered them on the stove on low in a large pan, stirring occasionally, until the berries had burst. A low temperature helps keep the berries on bottom from scorching. In addition to breaking up the skins, cooking the berries renders the seeds inert, so new plants won’t suddenly start growing in your compost!

I used a conical food mill to press the pulp from the skin and seeds. I’ve used a hand-cranked food mill in the past, but the seeds are large enough to gum up the mechanism; the simple conical food mill worked much better. I returned the separated pulp – about 4 cups, the amount called for in the recipe – to the pan with 1/2 cup sugar. I omitted the lemon juice, since the pulp already tasted quite tart. I turned the heat to low, and stirred occasionally until the liquid was reduced to about 1 cup of thick syrup.

So far, so good. Right?

Well, maybe it was a little too thick. And I guess autumn olive contains something which acts like pectin? Once the syrup cooled, I sealed it in a container and popped it into the fridge. At which point it set up, similar to a freezer jam. There were weird lumps in it too, presumably from areas that overcooked from touching the sides of the pan. When I investigated this morning in preparation for writing this blog post, my “molasses” looked like vengeful, angry ketchup gone horribly wrong.

Autumn olive "molasses", or ketchup gone very, very wrong
Autumn olive “molasses”, or ketchup gone very, very wrong

Folks, no amount of food photography, staging, or composition could ever make this gelatinous goo look attractive.

Looks aside, the real question is: does it work as a substitute for pomegranate molasses?

I can’t tell you. I’m afraid to try it.

So in the end, this experiment definitely gave me something “new” and “different”. Maybe next time I have eight cups of berries, I’ll just whip up some ketchup like everyone else!

(I have been unable to find the nutritional information for autumn olive berries online, aside from vague allusions to them having more lycopene than tomatoes. Please leave a comment below if you know of a good source!)

What foods, wild or otherwise, have you been experimenting with lately … successfully or otherwise?

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