In our neck of the woods, blackberries are considered both a scourge and a blessing.
They grow anywhere and everywhere, bristling with thorns, invading civilized gardens, smothering roadside ditches, threatening to obliterate freeway on-ramps. You can hack and thwack and rip, but without doubt, they’ll be back, shooting up from underground runners that seem to grow a foot a day.
In August, if you see a car pulled off the side of the road you can bet everyone’s piled out to gather wild blackberries.
Blackberries are the original fruit colonizers, gleefully annexing every inch of air and vacant land ever since the last glaciers retreated eons ago. Botanists disagree on the actual number of species, but there are over 2,000 varieties worldwide.
I like poet Mary Oliver’s sensible, sensual detente with them in ‘August’ from American Primitive
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
After a day of gloved warfare in the meadow, I retreated to the kitchen with scratched arms and a bucket of berries, too beat to cook.
Visiting Amanda commandeered the kitchen and whipped up this super easy Blackberry Peach Crumble from Sally’s A New Way to Cook (basic recipe, below) However, as an improvisational cook herself, she balks at following any recipe to the letter, even Sally’s.
She decided to layer tumbled chunks of locally grown yellow peach, nectarine, and our heirloom Transparent apple* on the bottom first. She topped this melange with the fragile blackberries so they remained intact and retained their unique texture.
Then she beefed up the crumbly top with a hefty handful of Bob’s Red Mill Muesli and almond flour, adding chopped pecans when she ran out of almonds. To compensate for the muesli, she doubled the recommended butter to one whole stick, and substituted homemade salt infused with vanilla pods for regular Kosher salt.
“Face it” she said, “you can use any old fruit, but the REAL reason everyone loves a crumble is the crunchy, salty, buttery topping” She slid the crumble under broiler for two minutes after baking to caramelize the brown sugar and crisp the top.
I’m calling this Island Harvest Crumble”.
Then, she added a big dollop of vanilla ice cream to each serving
She scored with all improvisations.
There were many happy tongues.
The next day, I had a slice warmed up with crumbled sheep’s milk feta for lunch. YOWSA. The feta was almost better than the ice cream with the acidic fruit.
*Transparent apples are falling off two of our ancient apple trees. According to our neighbor who has lived here for 52 years, they are the first apples to ripen but you have to harvest and eat them fast. Highly perfumed skins and a good snap of ascorbic acid.
Recipe for Improvising: Summer Fruit Crumble
This is the basic recipe from A New Way to Cook that Amanda took as her base, making the changes Susan mentioned above. You can use pretty much any combination of prepped fruit you like as long as it totals about 5 cups. I love Amanda’s trick of putting heavier fruits like peaches on the bottom, and more fragile berries on top, to keep them intact. The combo below just serves as an example to riff off of, as Amanda did so brilliantly. —Sally
For the Topping:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sliced almonds (1 1/2 ounces), or other nuts (coarsely chop when cool)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3 cups blackberries, blueberries or raspberries
2 cups peeled, sliced peaches, plums or apricots
2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons white and/or brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350.
For the Topping, spread the nuts on a baking sheet. Roast until they are just golden and fragrant, 6-7 minutes (do not allow the nuts to brown past golden). Set aside to cool. In a food processor, grind the nuts, flour, sugar and salt to a medium fine meal. Transfer to a medium bowl. With your fingers, work in the butter by pinching and rubbing the mixture until it is very crumbly. Refrigerate 15 minutes.
In a 10-inch gratin dish, toss the fruit with the flour, and sugar. Then sprinkle the lemon juice over the fruit and toss again. Spread the fruit evenly in the dish and spread the topping evenly over the fruit.
Bake until the fruit is bubbling and the top is browned, about 40 minutes. If the top is browning too quickly, cover lightly with foil.