This autumn I was taking an interesting and unique class in edible ornamental plants — in other words, eating things you usually put in the landscape to make it look pretty. It was a very fun class that opened my eyes up to a lot of new “alternative edibles” and reminded me of a few I’d eaten a lot as a kid but hadn’t thought of in quite awhile.
One of the plants/fruit we studied was Cornus mas or cornelian cherry. Normally this oversized shrub or undersized tree, depending on how you look at it, is use solely for its glorious sunshiny display of yellow flowers in very early spring when nothing else is in bloom or even green for that matter. As it turns out, this pretty plant also bears some delicious ruby red fruit. While the fruit, called cornelian cherries, is pretty small (about the size of a skinny cranberry) it is very prolific so it’s not hard to pick a hefty pail’s worth quickly. It has a decidedly tart taste so it’s not very good eaten raw. Instead, cook it up into sauces and jam with a sizable scoop of sugar, and it’s a suitable stand-in for any recipe using the more popular cranberry. The only real drawback to using cornelian cherries is the pesky pit – just like a regular cherry – that requires an extra processing step to remove. Still it’s worth the work to give this new “alternative edible” a try.
Cornelian cherries are available in the fall, usually in September, though different trees ripen up at different times, depending on the little microclimate surrounding that particular tree. The tree I was picking from was actually right next to three others, two of which weren’t even close to being ready and one that had already passed, the birds having stripped it clean. It can be a little challenging to identify a Cornus mas if you didn’t plant it yourself. My best advice to you, considering they’re over for this year already anyway, is to pay attention in the spring for any bright yellow flowering shrubs/trees that aren’t a forsythia bush. Make a note of where you saw it and revisit that plant in the fall to see if it has these fruit on it.
In addition to the Cornus mas fruit, there’s another oddball cherry in this post. That’s the tasty candy-like Physalis pruinosa or ground cherry that I’ve featured in this recipe, and this recipe, and this recipe in the past. I really love these golden orbs. I discovered over the summer that this plant grows very well in a container on a baking hot deck in the city so I’d definitely suggest it for other urbanites looking for a highly productive food crop that’s versatile in the kitchen. Nothing quite like popping these puppies out of their husk and straight into your waiting mouth.
So this post gives you two recipes for the price of one — Cornelian & Ground Cherry Sauce along with Cornelian Cherry Jam — mostly because I forgot to take pictures of the jam before it all got gobbled up on whole grain toast over the course of a week’s breakfast. I really like the tart sweet combination the cornelian cherry adds to both these preparations.
Cornelian & Ground Cherry Sauce
A Straight from the Farm Original
1 C. ripe cornelian cherries (Cornus mas)
½ C. ripe ground cherries
half a vanilla bean, split and scraped
1/3 C. (scant) sugar
Sort and clean the fruit and wash it. In a small saucepan, cover the cornelian cherries with water and bring to a boil for 15 minutes or until they are soft. Use a food mill, cheese cloth or a colander with a potato masher to press the pulp and juice out into. Set aside.
Using the same small saucepan, simmer the ground cherries in just a splash of water, cooking until they soften, about 5 minutes. Smash with a spoon or potato masher.
Combine the two fruit pulps in the saucepan and add the vanilla bean and sugar. Simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes to let the sugar dissolve and the flavors combine.
Serve as a warm sauce over savory dishes of meat or fish. Or chill and serve over generous scoops of ice cream.
(makes about a half cup of sauce)
Cornelian Cherry Jam
Adapted from Almost Turkish Recipes
6 C. fresh cornelian cherries (Cornus mas)
3 C. water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
6 C. sugar
½ t. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wash and sort the cornelian cherries, removing any stems and rotten fruit. Wash in cool water and drain.
Combine cleaned cherries and the three cups of water in a large heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and keep at a boil for 15 minutes or until the fruit is soft. Turn off heat and add the vanilla bean scrapings, stirring well. Allow to cool.
Using a food mill, cheese cloth, or even a colander with a potato masher, press the fruit pulp and juices out into a bowl. This process can take a lot of elbow grease and you will feel like you aren’t getting that much “good stuff”, but it will be worth it. Rinse out the saucepan you had been using and return it to the stove, pouring in the fruit pulp and juice.
Add the sugar and lemon juice to the fruit juice and bring everything to a rolling boil. Make a note of the time or set a timer for 6 minutes once the mixture starts to boil. A pink foam will form as it boils; use a large spoon to skim off this foam and discard it.
Meanwhile sterilize your jars by filling them with an inch or two of water and microwaving on high for 4 minutes. In a small saucepan with water, simmer the lids until ready to seal the jars. At this point, your jelly is probably about ready to come off the stove.
Turn off the heat and allow the jelly to cool slightly but no more than 15 minutes as it will set up quickly due to the cornelian cherries’ high pectin content. Place a jar in a small bowl to catch any drips and keep your hands from getting burned. Use a ladle to fill the jars, being sure to wipe the rims very clean when you’re finished. Drain off the water from the lids and seal each jar tightly. Turn upside down and cover with a kitchen towel – this should seal the jars but if you’d like to be safe (should you be considering giving this jelly as a unique gift for the holidays), process the jars in a hot water bath as directed here.
(makes about 5 half pint jars)