FOUND FRUIT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush.

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

So early in the morning.

Never in my childhood singing of that cloying Mother Goose nursery rhyme did I imagine that its words would one day have a literal meaning for me.

Yet here I am at first light these June mornings, walking slowly around the large weeping mulberry across from our front door, carefully plucking small, dark berries from its dense and pendulous vines.

The mulberry harvest is an annual ritual at my home in Baltimore County. Every June 1, and for two or three weeks thereafter, I can count on free mulberries for my Cheerios, as long as I pick them before the birds do.

The ritual always ends with my vow to try some recipes for mulberries -- next year. My wife, Susan, always rolls her eyes when I say this, because she knows that I cook only a little more often than snow falls in a Maryland summer.

This year, though, is different. I'm learning what mulberries are good for besides purpled fingers and breakfast cereal. Mulberry Muffins. Country Cobbler. Even Chicken With Chipotle-Mulberry Sauce.

Mulberries -- at least the ones in my yard -- taste sweet but a little bland, but they can be paired with more flavorful fruit in just about any dish you'd care to make. Use them in breads and cakes. Try a cold fruit salad of mulberries, blueberries and sliced peaches. You can even make Mulberry Ice Cream, though I haven't, yet.

I've never seen mulberries for sale in grocery stores or at farmers' markets. And when I mention mulberries, I get plenty of blank looks. For many people, the word "mulberry" is likelier to call to mind a street name or a Dr. Seuss book title than a fruit that can be consumed and enjoyed.

But mulberries, in the words of New Mexico chef and food writer Dave DeWitt, "have been eaten by mankind since before recorded history and are also consumed by birds, raccoons, skunks and squirrels."

In "Mulberry Madness," a brief article on his fiery-foods.com Web site, DeWitt says the fruit was "a delicacy at feasts in ancient Rome, and the Romans dedicated the tree to Minerva, goddess of wisdom."

But my mulberry is not the black mulberry of ancient Rome, the one that Ovid said had its berries stained deep red forever by the blood of the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. This mulberry, with dark, juicy fruit, was spread through much of Europe, apparently by the Romans, and graced the English landscape long before the first Queen Elizabeth. The black mulberry (Morus nigra) is relatively rare in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nor is it the red mulberry (Morus rubra), native to Maryland and much of the eastern United States and a popular fruit tree in Colonial America. The red mulberry was among the fruit that greeted Maryland's first English settlers in 1634. " We cannot sett a foot, but tread on Strawberries, raspire, fallen mulberrie vines, acchorns, walnutts, saxafras," wrote the Rev. Andrew White, a Jesuit who accompanied the group. "The place abounds with [profit], but also with pleasure."

My mulberry turns out to be Morus alba 'Pendula,' a glammed-up descendant of the white mulberry whose leaves fed silkworm larvae in China and Japan for centuries.

Colonists hoping to launch a silk industry in America brought the white mulberry to our shores. The silk effort faltered, but the fast-growing and almost indestructible white mulberry was here to stay. It can be found today in almost every state. As many gardeners know, the wild white mulberry is highly invasive and can flourish in dry weather and poor soil. I've pulled up tiny white mulberry weeds by the hundreds.

The white mulberry also was naturalized and hybridized with the native red mulberry, according to a history prepared by the California Rare Fruit Growers. There are several cultivars, such as ours, that are attractive ornamentals. Indeed, says English garden writer Allen Paterson, in Best Trees for Your Garden, "They have become something of a cliche in suburban front yards that have been 'landscaped.' "

Still, the weeping mulberry, with its distinctive gnarled limbs, long vines and leaves of several shapes, was a mystery when we bought our property at the end of 1998. We had to ask a tree expert what it was, and were surprised to learn that it yielded abundant fruit every spring.

That first year, I began harvesting the berries, often with birds scolding my work. I have been diligent ever since, scrutinizing the cycle of ripening from white to pink to red to almost black. I never eat as I pick. Despite my careful touch, one of every five berries falls to the ground, making a dark purple mat beneath the tree. (Some people recommend spreading a sheet on the ground to catch these fall-aways, but I haven't.)

This year, as I began experimenting with recipes for the fruit, I made muffins first.

The recipe, from allrecipes.com, was very simple, and other than substituting fat-free yogurt for the fat-

free sour cream that was called for, I did not deviate. Later, Susan made the mulberries the fruit ingredient in a muffin concoction that includes honey, flaxseed and walnuts. Hers were more impressive.

Next, I made a Country Cobbler, using a recipe from fiery-foods.com that was very easy to follow. It called for 1 / 4 to 1 / 2 cup of sugar to be added to the berries, "depending on the sweetness of the fruit," as well as 1 / 3 cup each of sugar and brown sugar in the crust. Can you say sweet? I used 1 / 2 cup of sugar with the fruit. Next time, I will use less.

I also tried Chicken With Chipotle-Mulberry Sauce, using another recipe from fiery-foods.com. The sauce, combining mulberries, a chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, raspberry vinegar and a clove of garlic, is sweet and smoky and rather a marvel.

harry.merritt@baltsun.com

A bit About berries

The best-known species of mulberry trees in the United States are the red, the white and the black. Black mulberries are said to produce the juiciest, most flavorful fruit. The fruit of white mulberries can be somewhat bland, and the tree itself is often considered a weed.

Mulberries, like red wine, are a source of resveratrol, linked in some studies to longer life and decreased risk of heart disease.

According to A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, people in ancient times thought that silk was a product of mulberry leaves. In fact, silkworm larvae fed on the leaves of mulberries.

[Harry Merritt]

Mulberry Muffins

Makes 6 to 8 muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

pinch salt

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

1/4 cup skim milk

2 tablespoons applesauce

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 cup mulberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 6 jumbo muffin cups or 8 regular muffin cups, or line with paper muffin liners. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a medium bowl, mix together sour cream, milk, applesauce, egg and almond extract. Stir in flour mixture until batter is smooth. Fold in mulberries. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups.

Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Recipe and analysis from allrecipes.com

Per serving (based on 8 muffins): 167 calories, 5 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 34 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 187 milligrams sodium

Chicken With Chipotle-Mulberry Sauce

Makes 2 to 4 servings

2 chicken legs with thighs attached

favorite spice rub of choice

1/4 cup red-raspberry vinegar

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 cup crushed mulberries

1 chipotle pepper in adobo, minced

Place the chicken on a plate and sprinkle the rub over it. Cover plate and refrigerate while you prepare the sauce.

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, garlic, mulberries and chipotle pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree if you want a smoother sauce.

Grill the chicken over medium heat for about 12 minutes per side, turning often.

Serve the chicken covered with the sauce.

Adapted from fiery-foods.com

Per serving (based on 4 servings): 155 calories, 15 grams protein, 8 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 52 milligrams cholesterol, 84 milligrams sodium

Country Cobbler

Makes 6 servings

2 cups mulberries

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit

6 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the berries in a bowl, stir 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar into the fruit and set aside. Melt the butter, cool to room temperature and pour into an 8-inch-square glass baking dish.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together, and stir in the brown sugar; add the milk and lemon zest and mix.

Pour the batter into the dish of melted butter. Do not mix. Sprinkle the mulberries over the batter. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.

From fiery-foods.com

Per serving: 314 calories, 3 grams protein, 12 grams total fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 49 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 33 milligrams cholesterol, 339 milligrams sodium

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