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Chat Leftovers: Take your pick

Happy Wednesday, and thanks for being here. In between programming your DVR to record tonight's "Top Chef D.C." premiere and your new fave shows on Cooking Channel, get your questions ready for today's Free Range chat. Our guest chatmeister will be David Hagedorn, who writes today about star chef Michel Richard's venture into airplane food. David, who's also our Real Entertaining columnist, will address all things culinary, whether or not they involve plating salmon at 38,000 feet.

To tide you over till then, here's an answer to a leftover question we couldn't get to in last week's chat:

This may not be your expertise, but are there any poisonous blackberry/mulberry look-alikes that grow in our area? There are several patches of berries I’ve seen and been tempted to pick (even more so after the recent article), but I’d rather not get sick from foraging. Is that a bigger issue with mushrooms? Or should I just stick to the pick-your-own places?

My area of expertise? Well, it is and it isn't. I can claim very little technical knowledge about poisonous plants. But if you drive around less-developed areas of Northern Virginia in summer, you've probably seen me standing by the roadside, picking buckets of wild blackberries that I typically put on cereal or turn into cobblers.

And I'm still alive!

If you know what blackberries and mulberries look like -- and that's an important "if" -- there's little to no chance that you'll come across another kind of fruit, pick it and get sick. I can't think of anything around here that looks the same. Occasionally I'll be tricked into picking and eating a salmonberry, thinking it's a red raspberry, but even those aren't poisonous: They're just not very delicious.

I've read warnings that roadside berries are likely to be covered with chemical compounds from the exhaust of passing cars. I don't know if that's true, but it seems credible. I rinse all my foraged berries very thoroughly, and so far I've never suffered ill effects from them. Even if you find berries far away from roads, it still makes sense to give them a good spritz. (But don't store them wet, which I think encourages spoilage.)

So to answer your mushroom question, I'd be a lot more timid about foraging for wild mushrooms (make that I WOULD NEVER DO IT) than for wild blackberries.

And you asked whether you should stick with PYO places. Depending on your tastes, you might want to. In general, roadside or field berries around these parts are fairly seedy. If you're expecting them to taste like cultivated varieties, for example, or like the fabulously juicy berries that grow wild everywhere around Seattle, you'll be disappointed. But to make a serviceable pie or cobbler, or to just sprinkle on cereal, I think our local berries are fine.

So be sure you know what blackberries (and mulberries) look like, and you'll be okay. What should you beware of when picking them? Sharp blackberry thorns, ticks, bees, poison ivy, passing cars and getting the purple juice on your shirt. But probably not poisoning yourself.
-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  June 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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