The vibrant red-orange berries from the mountain ash tree, also known as the rowan tree, are technically edible raw. Technically. Uncooked, they're unpleasantly bitter, Kevin Hickey says. You wouldn't want to eat them "unless you're starving and lost in the woods."
If you were, you'd have a good chance of finding mountain ash berries at this time of year. They grow in most of the northern half of the U.S.; Hickey got his from local forager Dave Odd. He describes them as "really astringent, really high acid."
"When you eat them, they kind of pop," Hickey said. "They're quite crunchy on the outside. Very much like a persimmon—they have that slight creamy sweetness underneath the bitterness. . . . When you start to cook them down, they take on a really rich, almost umami-like quality, where they have a meaty, creamy texture."
Cooking takes away some of the bitterness of the berries, so Hickey simmered them in Sauternes (a dessert wine) to add sweetness, and paired them with squab. "The ash berries just made me think of game," he said. "Obviously where they've been foraged from, they're in a very rural setting, and I just have this image of pigeon hunting and that kind of thing." He pan-cooked the squab in rendered foie gras fat, finishing it off in the oven, then made a pan sauce with game jus (a stock made with the scraps and bones from game birds) and the Sauternes and berry reduction. Hickey also pureed the cooked berries with carrots and served it with the squab, along with sauteed root vegetables and a Concord grape reduction.
The squab, which Hickey got from a farmer in Pennsylvania, was quite a bit gamier than anything he'd found before—and that's what made the dish work, he said. "That gaminess with those berries . . . what I like about it is that it's very location specific. You taste the game, and you taste those berries, and you're automatically like, I'm in the forest hunting meat, you know?"
In the past, Hickey said, fruit and sugar were paired with game because the meat's flavors were so strong that they needed to be toned down. Now so much of it is farm raised that it doesn't need that pairing, and the sweet minty sauce that lamb traditionally comes with is superfluous. But "when you start getting real game that's raised in the wild . . . it's eating whatever it can get ahold of—it might even be eating these berries—it takes on a real gamy flavor. And now you need that stuff. The Concord grape puree, and the ash berries, and the Sauternes; this squab needs all that to balance the flavor, I think."
Compared with other berries, mountain ash berries have "a much different flavor," Hickey said. "They're just so wild tasting."
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Beverly Kim of Aria, working with black cardamom. The variety is stronger and a little less floral than the more common green cardamom, which you'd usually see on the spice shelf, Hickey said. "If you don't use it right, it kind of overpowers."
Squab With Mountain Ash Berries and Carrot Puree
Mountain Ash Berry Sauce
½ cup ash berries
½ cup Sauternes
4 oz shallots
2 oz white balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs thyme
2 star anise
2 cups game stock
salt to taste
Add all ingredients except the stock to a saucepan and reduce by two-thirds. Remove half the ash berries and reserve. Cover with game stock and simmer for one hour, skimming as necessary. Strain through a fine sieve and add the reserved berries back in. Season with salt and serve.
Mountain Ash Berry and Carrot Puree
4 oz mountain ash berries
4 oz Sauternes
4 carrots, chopped
4 oz carrot juice
2 sprigs winter savory
2 oz heavy cream
1 T butter
Combine berries, herbs, and Sauternes in saucepan and reduce by two-thirds, then add carrots, juice, salt, and white pepper. Cook until carrots are tender, cool slightly, add cream, and puree until smooth. Warm up in a pan with one tablespoon of butter and adjust the seasoning.
Render a couple of slices of foie gras in a pan. Remove the foie and add a breast of squab. Sear, then finish in the oven, cooking it for ten minutes at 450 degrees. Slice.
Put a swoosh of the puree in the center of the plate, arrange the squab slices on top, and pour on some of the mountain ash berry sauce, garnishing with some cooked baby vegetables and Concord grape reduction if desired.