Saturday, July 7, 2012

Burdock Stalk Recipe: Arctium lappa

Peeling burdock is like peeling a thin, 2-3 foot carrot. 
We've tried to eat many parts of the burdock plant in the past.  But when Arthur Haines mentioned a few weeks ago that the stalk was his favorite part of the plant, I decided that we had to try it.  Finding burdock was easy enough.  They grow all up and down our road.  I cut five robust looking stalks, tore off the large leaves and carried the stalks home.  (We've tried to eat the leaf-stalk, or petiole, before but found them impractical to peel.)  The stalks had an earthy smell that I found slightly unpleasant, but I sallied forth with, having recieved such esteemed recommendations. 
The outter tissue of the stalk is extremely bitter and must be completely and carefully peeled away to reveal the starching and mild inner core.  Imagine peeling a 2 1/2 foot long, thin and floppy carrot and you begin to get the idea.  It's definitely a fun novelty preparation, and I imagine that one could get skilled at processing this awkward vegetable with practice.  I'd read somewhere (I don't remember where) a favorable comparison between burdock stalk and new potatoes.  So we decided to try parboiling them and then sauteeing them in olive oil with garlic and onion.  I liked the flavor, but Ooga was the real test, she being much pickier than I. 

I started her off with a small portion and  . . . she asked for seconds.  We were ready to count this as a new family side dish. 

The next week, we were out walking, and I found a big patch of burdock.  I cut a few of the smaller stalks hoping to encourage the larger ones to propogate and bless us with hearty stalks in subsequent years.  I stripped them, carried them home and, since I didn't feel like eating them just then, stuck them in our refrigerator.  I found them again several days later.  They were a little wilted, but I wasn't scared.  I got out our trusty peeler and started on them hoping for another tasty mea.  Peeling these stalks was a real challenge though.  The fibers didn't come off anywhere near as easily.  And even though the stalks were narrower than the ones from our previous meal, they seemed tougher and drier.  After mangling two stalks into inedible stumps, I gave up. 

I'm not sure if the problem was my selection (of older, less tender stalks) or my storage (three days in the fridge).  From now on though, I'll plan to peel my burdock stalks shortly after picking it in hopes of enjoying a meal like the one pictured below. 

Our delicious first attempt at burdock stalk as a vegetable. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cattail Pollen: Gathering A New Edible (Typha latifolia)

Cattail pollen--gathered and sifted. 
The season for gathering cattail (Typha latifolia) pollen is frustratingly short for a part-time cave man.  We've missed every year since we began foraging.  But not this year.  It was Yub-yub's first canoe trip.  We were exploring the wide confluence of the Connecticut and West River.  Highlights included watching an industrious mink hauling a fat, brown duck along the riverbank rocks.  Yub-yub had a great time, and we were just about to return to the boat launch when I decided to look for wapato in the thick mud of a nearby marshy island.  We all got out of the canoe and squished our toes on the muddy bank.  We did find a few scattered wapato plants (Saggitaria sp.), but that wasn't what the trip will be remembered for.  Finally, we had found the cattails at the perfect stage. 

There they were!  Bright golden fingers of sunshine that sent out a powdery cloud of yellow dust when they were struck.  We made plans immediatly for me (Thag) to paddle out the next day and make a go at gathering the precious sun-dust. 

Mixed with wheat flour and leavening. 
Cattail pollen can be used like a flour, though it has no gluten and will crumble if not mixed with wheat.  (Unrelated digression:  These days gluten is a much-maligned substance, blamed for all kinds of human ills.  This is really a shame, for gluten is a truly miraculous molecule that should be celebrated for its unique role in human foods.  And though real gluten allergies are very real and miserable health problems, I suspect that many so-called gluten allergies are imagined, and that the improved health experienced by people who reduce gluten in their lives is due in large part to an accompanying decrease in processed foods and a greater diversity of foods.)  What a gift it must have seemed to our ancestors that this protein-rich, versatile food could be stored for long periods.  We had no plans to store it, however, knowing that it would take time to gather this staple in quantity. 

Cattail batter.

I paddled out a borrowed whitewater kyak (quite badly, I admit) the next day.  I had with me a plastic gallon milk jug with a hole, about one inch in diameter cut from the side.  The instructions, as I'd read them, were to insert the pollen-heavy male flowers into the hole and shake.  The pollen was supposed to fall into the container.  And while this was true, insects, and other fibrous parts of the flower fell in as well.  As the container was shaken, the fibers would bunch up into dense little cottony balls.  No matter.  I figured they could be sifted out later. 
My friend, the owner of the kayak, was waiting back at the dock, and I was anxious not to leave her too long.  So after about 40 minutes of inserting and shaking, I returned, stuffing an old sock in the hole so that none of my hard-won harvest would fall out. 
On the griddle. 

The harvested pollen was beautiful.  The fibers and insects sifted out easily through a jelly bag fastened to the top of an old mason jar.  (The jelly bag is surely one of the great contribution of civilization to the forager's toolkit.)  The sifted pollen looked even more magnificent, and I found myself admiring through all angles of the thick glass.  But then what to do with it? 

I'd read about the several recommended uses of my novel ingredient.  Porridge?  I tasted some of the raw pollen.  Porridge might be too strong.  Sprinkle on like a seasoning or nutritional yeast?  No, I wanted something that would feel like the pollen was the real center of the meal.  I checked out several baked goods that all had promise but didn't highlight the pollen enough for my maiden voyage into to pollen cookery.  Then I found this recipe for cattail pollen pancakes.  The proportions were right.  The quantities were right.  The dish was right.  Pancakes it would be. 
The cakes were a golden color. 
You can see how colorful the food remained through the whole process in the pictures here.  We used every last morsel to make enough pancakes for the three of us to enjoy a hearty breakfast.  Ooga and I didn't dress these cakes at all for fear of distracting from the curious, light, rich cakes you see here.  (Butter, on the other hand, is Yub-yub's reason for living.  If we don't watch her carefully, she scoops a finger-full out of an unattended stick.  As you might guess, Yub-yub gobbled hers up with butter.)  This was certainly one of the Foraging Family's greatest triumphs of 2012. 

Years from now, Yub-yub will be delighted that
such flattering pictures were posted.