Wild Things in June - Cattails
Welcome to Wild Things in June! This month, I've decided to highlight the plant that is often referred to as nature's grocery store because all of its parts are edible - cattails (Typha spp.). Cattail plants (a.k.a. bulrushes) are widespread and easily recognized, as they tend to grow in swampy areas, grow tall slender leaves, and have reproductive parts that are shaped like brown hot dogs on stalks.
Edible Parts of Cattail
Rhizomes - The "root" of the plant can be dug up and used for starch, or cooked and the starch chewed away from the fiber. To be honest, I've tried both, and didn't think either was worth the trouble. But if any of you have done so with great success and enjoyed the results, I'd love to hear from you. There is a discussion of collecting cattail roots with lots of nice pictures here. Sam Thayer also reports in the Forager's Harvest enjoying the lateral shoots and buds which emerge from the rhizomes in the fall. I've not yet tried either, and again, would really enjoy hearing stories from anyone who has.
Shoots - You can harvest the first spring growth of cattail shoots, sometimes called Cossack asparagus, and continue to do so right up until the plant starts to send energy to its flower (you can continue to find tender bits deep in the heart of the plant even in late summer, but eating this part of the plant is ideal when it is younger). If you can catch the shoots just as they start growing from the rhizome, they are completely tender. After that, it may be necessary to grab the central leaves and firmly tug them out. You will have harvested something that looks a bit like a large leek, and you can eat the most tender white portion, the heart of the leaves. To my tongue, it tastes like cucumber. Eating cattail shoots raw can cause some people to have a prickly feeling in their throat. Experiment with a small bite to determine if you have this reaction. If so, you may still be able to enjoy them cooked. Maury Grimm wraps cattail shoots with wild onions, swipes them with walnut oil, then throws them on the grill. Yum! With both the roots and shoots of cattail, be certain that you are harvesting from the cleanest source possible, as they are growing directly out of the water. Learn more about the shoots and a few recipe ideas here.
Pollen - There are few wild foods that I anticipate more than cattail pollen. It is a pain in the rear to collect it. At the time of year it emerges, it is usually hot and humid, and it requires some effort to collect enough pollen with which to cook. But the effort is absolutely worth it! You can use cattail pollen either like saffron, or to replace up to 1/3 of the flour in baked goods. You will be left with the sunniest yellow foods, with a taste I struggle to describe, much like sticking your nose into a bunch of carnations - floral and wild, but not in a perfumed way. Over the years, I've refined my technique for collecting cattail pollen. Learn more about it here, and don't miss the link to cattail pollen recipes at the bottom of the post.
Are you new to Wild Things? Here's the scoop.
In many countries, traditional foods are prepared for their medicinal effects. In most of these places, the foods prepared were wild foods that were cheap and easy to obtain. By default, they were local and seasonal. One of the problems with a lot of modern fad diets is that in order to actually follow the diet, one needs to fork out a whole lot of money. Most of us just can't afford to do that, especially not in this economy! Not only that, but it seems might suspicious that, in many cases, these products that are touted as panaceas have to come from half way around the globe -- noni from Tahiti, acai from Brazil, gogii from China. What are the odds that God (or the higher being of your choice) put all of the good stuff in Tahiti, and left us to fend for ourselves until the advent of globalization? Whether food or medicine, the majority of what we need can be found locally. It might not be trendy, but it will most probably be just as effective, if not more so. Wherever you are, you have with your reach an untapped resource - wild foods!
Welcome to the Wild Things Round Up*
As your host, I'd like to demonstrate that eating wild foods doesn't need to be a terrifying endeavor, and that our health and our diet needn't be dictated by financial status or geographic location.
A Few Notes About the Round Up
1. Wherever you are, you have access to Wild Things, even if this means clandestine trips to your neighbor's yard in the middle of the night**.
2. Foraging isn't only for hippies and luddites, though hippies and luddites are both very much welcome (Hi, Hippie! Hi, Luddite!). It's easy to assume that everyone who eats this way lives out in the wild, and shuns the material world and/or technology. But it just isn't true! This isn't a club exclusive to country mice. I live smack in the middle of suburbia. I'm a very well adjusted modern woman who loves my life, and happen to love nature as well.
3. This is not about trying to be a cave dweller. Though there are plenty of people in the world who successfully and gracefully live a life that is more similar to how people lived hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. I'm not one of those people, and I'll assume that for the most part, you are not either. It's easy to romanticize, but that is a difficult, hard working life. It's also not necessary to remove yourself from the modern world in order to be connected to nature. When it comes down to it, isn't that what we all want a bit more of -- connection, to nature, to community, to other people, to a higher power? Nature is everywhere. Life is everywhere. It's not outside of your touch. It's not only available to people who sacrifice modern convenience. You do not need to give up your makeup or latte.
A Few Foraging Rules
1. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING THAT YOU CANNOT 100% IDENTIFY!!! I can't stress the importance of this point. People can die from this sort of stupidity. Let's not win any Darwin Awards here.
2. Know the foraging laws in your area. Call the city, call the forest service, call the landowner. Respect private property. Ask permission. Most people will gladly let you pull up some weeds for them. Most of them are delighted to get rid of some of the fruit that rots all over the pavement. Just ask.
3. Don't take more than you need. Never take rare plants. Learn what's in your area -- only take things what are abundant. This is important! Always think of the future, not just in terms of what you want, but in terms of the ecology of the system from which you are harvesting. These ecosystems have been around for millenia, since long before people got there. Don't be the one to change that in one generation.
Tools You Will Need
1. Scissors and/or pocket knife
2. A local guidebook (don't be tempted to grab a national guide), with pictures
3. Bags for collecting food
How to Play
At the beginning of each month, I will introduce a new Wild Thing. I will give pictures, descriptions, best locations, and taste, and also list any possible toxicity issues. The plants that I feature will be those with few, if any, toxic lookalikes. And if there are any, I'll give you ample warning. None of the plants I select will have any potential lethal lookalikes.
Over the course of the month, both you and I will go and find the featured plant, play with it in the kitchen, and come up with creative ways to use it. But don't feel like you need to invent a recipe in order to participate. Feel free to tell about your experience using a known recipe. But please do credit the originator of the recipe.
If you have a blog, post your recipe on your blog, and then share it with Wild Things. Also, mine your archives, and link old recipes.
If you don't have a blog, you are still welcome to participate. Simply introduce your recipe and experience with a few sentences, and then share your recipe. A picture is always nice, too, although not necessary to play along.
Before the end of the month (sooner is better, because your host has a day job!), submit your recipe to email@example.com . Please send your recipe directly to that email address. If you send it to my personal email, or post it on Facebook, I'm likely to forget it.
At the end of the month, I will provide a round up list of everyone's adventures. Sound like fun? I think so.
*No association with Monsanto.
** Just kidding. I don't advocate stealing. Really, there's no need -- a knock on the door and a "Hey, I noticed that you have an apple tree full of rotting apples. I was wondering, could I take a few of them, or pay you for some of them, or mow your lawn for some of them?" will suffice. Most people are horrified at the thought of taking money for apples, and will drop big bags of them off on your front step for months to come.