To read Part 1: Foraging on the ranch Click HERE.
When asked what the wild Desert Hackberry fruit tastes like it is hard for me to describe. The only thing I can come up with is it tastes like a tiny Rainier cherry however, that could just be my Pacific Northwest background talking. Rainier cherries are what dreams are made out of. The only other taste description I found on the internet described it as tasting like sweet tea. So there you go, it doesn’t get much more Southern then sweet tea.
As Adam & I picked and tasted each bush for quality control we discovered that some bushes were more tart then others. It appeared that the more sparse the berries were on a bush the sweeter tasting or more ripe they were. We figured that perhaps the birds and critters at the ranch knew something we didn’t. Yes, it was time consuming and hot outside but it wasn’t anymore inconvenient then picking commercial berries. We had a portable radio with us and we enjoyed the time together.
Processing the picked berries did take some patience. We were sure to wash them as best we could by using a hose to flush the debris away from berries.
Our chickens took quite an interest in our task at hand and received the discarded berries as their prize for being persistent.
What’s for dinner you ask?
Czech Cottontail schnitzel with sweet wild Desert Hackberry dipping sauce, crispy organic rosemary potatoes & garden cucumber & radish corn salsa
Desert Hackberry Dipping sauce (made a week in advance):
Place washed berries into cast iron deep casserole dish with enough water to cover the berries. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes. Once the skin has softened, use the back of a spoon or a masher to remove the pulp from the hard seed.
In batches, pour the water and berries through a sieve into another saucepan to strain out the seeds. Mash as much of the pulp through the sieve as you can. At this point, you might realize that a lot of the pulp and skin is still on the strainer. Don’t be worried if any pulp or skin makes it through.
Add 1/4 cup sugar and one Tbsp. of lemon juice for every cup of berries to the saucepan. Simmer and stir the liquid about 20 minutes. We poured ours into a mason jar for storage in the fridge once cooled.
The past month I have been playing Elmer Fudd with our local cottontail rabbit population. When I first saw “Peter” jump over our chicken wire barrier and out of the garden my jaw dropped. Until that moment, I honestly have never really wanted to harvest a cottontail on the ranch. They are abundant but I know the role they play in feeding the predators, coyote, bobcat, fox, snake, owl and hawk that we share our home with. To take away from their food source seemed unnecessary and part of the reason I believe they have never messed with our ducks or chickens (that I know of).
If you have consumed wild rabbit before you know it contains what foodie folks call the umami factor. It is a very lean, all natural white meat. Most people compare it to chicken however, that is an insult to the rabbit in my opinion. When I found Peter in the garden I told Adam I was ready to harvest my first rabbit on the ranch. I took a shot at Peter early one morning and missed. I had hesitated for too long. Adam enlisted his help and would text me as he left for work to tell me there were rabbits outside. In fact, a rather plump one would taunt him every morning as it took a cool nap under the bird feeder, having eaten its fill I am sure. My Peter HAD to be caught in the garden. I had to be certain it was Peter eating and enjoying my hard work.
Finally, late Tuesday night I had success and found Peter in my garden. Peter was actually a she. While I know more rabbits may find their way into the garden I am thankful to be able to harvest all natural lean meat right outside my door. For the recipe we followed for rabbit schnitzel follow the link to Edible Austin.
The merriment of wild rabbit and wild hackberries was immeasurable. Aside from my garden I can almost guarantee our rabbit had consumed the berries recently. Going with my gut, I created an idea in my head and Adam helped me execute it with his culinary skills. I love cooking with him.
It is rare opportunities like this, when I can take advantage of protein, vegetable & herbs from our garden and put them in one flavor packed meal that I feel most grateful for the life we live. A life four years ago I had dreamed of living but did not. Careful execution of one dish, inspired by the world around me, gives meaning to food in a world where we are constantly shoving junk into our mouths. Even though I remain a consumer I still feel grateful for being more connected to my food, the land & the wildlife around me.
Maybe I’ll harvest another cotton tail before then but come next year, when the desert hackberry bloom I’ll know it’s time.
Look who I found! Not the Peter I am after so this little juvenile cottontail got to bounce away happily into the brush. So many people think all hunters are killers. Those like me love & seek to live in balance with the game we pursue. As my friend Austin Morris said to me, ” Let them eat (in your garden), it will all become food eventually.”