Low Hanging Fruit: Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton offers fruit pickers for urban trees

How OFRE is capturing nature’s bounty by picking neglected fruit, pleasing fruit lovers and home owners alike.

by Marke Henteleff

Edmonton's Bounty: Pears

Edmonton’s bounty: pears
Marke Henteloff photo

This past summer was a bumper crop year for cherries in Edmonton. All over the city, trees were laden with the bright red fruit. Many people don’t know that cherries grow in Edmonton. Or pears, plums and apricots, for that matter. Homeowners have been planting these trees for years in their yards, as landscape trees, for their beautiful spring blossoms or to entice birds. It takes the right combination of a mild winter and a frost-free spring to encourage cherry and apricot trees to produce abundant fruit.. Last summer was just the right combination of weather events.

Apples and crab apples are not so finicky. Rather like Edmontonians themselves, apples thrive in our northern climate. That spindly apple sapling that was planted in the front yard 20 years ago will mature into a full-fledged orchard tree, producing up to 10 bushels of apples at maturity. That’s a pile of apples! About 1,000 apples on a mature tree. What to do with all that bounty?

Every year, thousands of fruit trees and berry bushes produce tons of fruit in our city, most of which goes to waste for lack of picking. Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) is trying to change that. OFRE was established in 2009 as a non-profit organization that grew out of an interest in locally grown food, raising awareness about food security and establishing urban local connections with our food. Throughout the growing season, OFRE mobilizes volunteers in the greater Edmonton area to harvest, process and preserve local fruit from residential properties. The bounty is shared between property owners, volunteer pickers and various charities in Edmonton.

Bonnie Patterson-Payne picks saskatoons
Marke Henteloff photo

Capturing the Harvest

How does Operation Fruit Rescue work? People who want to volunteer to pick fruit (the pickers) and homeowners with fruit trees or berry bushes (the growers) register with OFRE.

“I am a fruit grower (apples)” said Cheryl Middleton. “Last year was the first time we used OFRE to pick our fruit because it was just going to waste. The volunteers did a wonderful job, not breaking any branches and cleaning up any apples and leaves that fell. Our apple tree just gives too many apples for us and I didn’t want to see it go to waste. As it is, we still throw out at least 20 bags of fruit that has fallen off the tree.”

Throughout the season, pickers are advised by OFRE of upcoming picks. Anywhere from a couple to a dozen pickers will show up at the pick site and harvest the fruit. The fruit is divvied up between the pickers, the grower, a portion to OFRE and a portion donated to a charity. Local charities that gratefully accept fruit donation include Salvation Army, Edmonton Food Bank, and Ronald MacDonald House, among others.

“I have I’ve been doing fruit picks now with Operation Fruit Rescue for about five years,” says Neil Korotash. “I met a number of people that used the apples they were picking to make hard cider. The cider has been amazing, and it has been fun to share that cider with people whose apples I’ve picked. I’ve also used cherries and apples to make a number of homemade preserves, and often bring fruit out to school for my students to use. One of my favourite things about OFRE is the really cool people I meet while on picks. We often share common interests and there is something very relaxing and calming about picking apples while sharing stories and ideas.”

Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton would love to hear from you if you have fruit to spare, or, if you would like to be a picker. Visit operationfruitrescue.org for information.

Gillian Turner harvests an apple tree

Gillian Turner harvests an apple tree
Marke Henteloff photo

Preserving the Harvest

Following a pick, there is usually a large quantity of fruit to deal with. It is one thing to make a pie out of a few apples; it is quite another thing to handle a bushel of them. Here are some of the strategies used by OFRE’s pickers to process and preserve all that bounty.

Apple Cider: Some OFRE members have taken the leap into homemade cider, both hard and soft versions. OFRE hosts seasonal cider events where people can bring their apple bounty to OFRE’s micro-orchard at McCauley School. Using the bicycle-powered cider press, bushels of apples are turned into gallons of fresh apple juice, to be used for hard or soft cider, or fruit jelly or syrups.

Various jellies

Various jellies
Marke Henteleff photo

Freezing: Fruit can be peeled, cored and sliced, soaked briefly in water with lemon juice to prevent browning and frozen in bags for later use. This is a quick, effective method for handling apples, plums and pears. Berries (raspberries, saskatoons, currants) and chopped rhubarb can be frozen without any other preparation. Fruit with pits, such as cherries, should be pitted before freezing. Fruit stored in the freezer will keep for a few months after which time it should be eaten or further processed using one of the following methods.

Juicing: Chop and core the fruit, place in a large pot, barely cover with water. Simmer until the fruit has released its juice. Strain the fruit through a jelly bag. Discard the pulp (makes great compost!), reserve and sweeten the juice to taste. The juice can be frozen or processed in a water bath. Or, use a steam juicer, such as the Mehu Liisa steam juicer. This is the easiest way to handle a lot of fruit at once. No need to peel, pit or core. The fruit is dumped in the top of the juicer, heated on the stove over water and pure fruit juice runs out the bottom. The juice can be sweetened to taste, frozen or processed in a water bath. Check out the workings of this very handy appliance online at mehuliisa.com/aboutmehu-liisa-products.

Water Bath Processing: Fruit is naturally acidic and can be safely and easily canned using a water bath canner. You have likely seen these distinctive dark blue enamel canners in your grandmother’s kitchen or at flea markets. Water bath processing requires the large canning pot with a jar rack inside, glass preserving jars and snap lids. Raw fruit covered with boiling juice or water can be put directly into the preserving jars, sweetened to taste and processed in the water bath. Another method is to stew the fruit first, then pour into the preserving jars and process. It is simple to do but there are necessary steps to be successful. Fruit preserved using the water bath process will keep for a couple of years. Learn more at simplycanning.com/water-bath-canning.html. Or ask your grandmother!

To learn more about Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton, check out the website operationfruitrescue.org or visit us on Facebook.

Favourite fruit recipes from OFRE members

Fresh fruit pandowdy

Fresh fruit pandowdy
Marke Henteleff photo

Pandowdy

“Pandowy is a type of baked fruit pie without the bottom crust. It is an ideal way to use a variety of stewed or fresh fruit. I like water bath processing fruit, since it is fast and keeps for a long time. I put up pints and pints of canned fruit every fall (raspberries, plums, cherries, rhubarb, or whatever else grows locally). It’s a sunny taste of summer in the dead of winter. This recipe uses stewed rhubarb and frozen cherries.” – Marke Henteleff.

Crust

¼ c pecans (or other nuts), toasted and ground coarsely
1 c flour
1 t sugar
½ t salt
½ c butter, cut into small pieces
3-4 T ice water

Mix the first 4 ingredients together. Blend in the butter and work until the texture resembles cornmeal. Add the ice water until the dough comes together. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate before using.

Filling

2 c stewed rhubarb (or substitute other stewed or fresh chopped fruit)
1 c frozen sweet cherries (no pits)
¼ c brown sugar (approx, depends on which fruit is used. Adjust to your own taste)
2 T flour
pinch ground cloves, ginger, cinnamon, as desired
1 T lemon juice
2 T butter, cut into small pieces
heavy cream, for brushing
brown sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a large mixing bowl, toss together all the fruit filling ingredients except the butter, cream and dusting brown sugar. Mix until fruit is coated evenly with the flour. Pour the fruit filling into a deep ceramic pie dish. Dot the surface of the fruit filling with the butter.

Roll out the chilled crust on a floured surface to about ¼-inch thickness. Drape the rolled crust over the fruit filling and tuck the edges inside the pie dish, sealing the fruit. Brush the crush with cream and dust with brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes in the oven. Remove from the oven and gently push some of the crust into the fruit filling with the back of a spoon. This gives the pandowdy its trademark rumpled look. Return to the oven and bake another 25 to 35 minutes until the crust is golden and the fruit filling is bubbling. Let cool. Serve with dollops of whipped cream or ice cream.

Makes 1 large pie.

Eton Mess

This traditional English dessert was served in the 1930s in the Eton College tuck shop. It is not known why it is called mess, but it may refer to the appearance of the dish, which includes broken up meringues, whipped cream, and fruit. For ease of preparation, use prepared meringues. Preserved raspberries are used in this version of the recipe. Other preserved berries would work as well.

12 meringues (approximately), broken up
2 c preserved raspberries, including juice
2 t cornstarch
1½ c heavy cream
¼ c white sugar
¼ t vanilla extract

Place preserved raspberries and juice in a saucepan. Sweeten to taste. Place a couple of tablespoons of the raspberry juice in a separate bowl. Stir in the corn starch to make a smooth paste. Return this mixture to the saucepan. Heat gently until the raspberries thicken. Set aside to cool.

Whip the heavy cream into soft peaks. Add the vanilla and the sugar. Mix well.

Divide the broken meringues among 6 bowls, top with the whipped cream, and pour the cooled raspberries over the whole mess. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

Phantom Rhubarb Muffins

“These muffins are great for breakfast. They are a perfect snack and pair well with tea or coffee. I love them!” Rachel Christensen. Adapted from Best of Bridge.

½ c fat-free sour cream
¼ c vegetable oil
1 large egg
1⅓ c flour
1 c diced rhubarb
⅔ c brown sugar
½ t baking soda
¼ t salt

Blend together sour cream, oil and egg. Set aside in another bowl. Stir remaining ingredients together and combine with sour cream mixture. Mix just until moistened. Fill 12 large muffin cups ⅔ full.

Brown Sugar Cinnamon Topping

¼ c brown sugar
¼ c chopped pecans
½ t cinnamon
2 t melted butter

Combine all ingredients and spoon onto each muffin.

Bake at 35ºF (180ºC) for 25-30 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.

Rhunilla Grey Jam

Adapted from Food in Jars

10 c chopped rhubarb (approximately 2½ pounds of stalks)
5 c sugar
1 c Earl Grey tea (double-strength)
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 lemon, juiced
pinch salt
1 pkg liquid pectin

In a 4-quart, non-reactive pot, bring the rhubarb, sugar and tea to a boil. Add the vanilla bean, lemon and salt to the pot and let it bubble gently for about ten minutes. After ten minutes have elapsed, add the pectin, stir to combine and let cook for a few more minutes. At this point, dip a spoon in the jam and see how it coats the back of the spoon. If you get a nice, even sheet, the jam is done. You can also taste at this point, to see if you like the balance of flavors. Add a little more lemon juice if you feel it needs additional brightening.

Sterilize 4 1-pint wide-mouth preserving jars in a large pot of boiling water. If you’re making refrigerator jam (it will keep nicely unprocessed in the fridge for 2-3 months), skip this step.
Pour into hot jars, wipe mouth and rings to remove any spillage and apply lids and rings. Process in a hot water bath for ten minutes.

Remove from water and let cool.

Makes four pints.

Kids enjoy the apple harvest

Kids enjoy the apple harvest
Marke Henteleff photo

Marke Henteleff has been a volunteer with OFRE for the last couple of years, taking part in the picks and potlucks. It has been a great way to meet lots of dedicated Edmontonians, passionate about this city, as well as reaping bountiful fruit harvests every summer.