Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nature's Pantry- Wild Edibles- Part II- Cattails

Ok, so if you've been keeping up with the "Nature's Pantry" series, by now you've no doubt noticed that Part I turned into a MUCH larger project than I ever anticipated, and it's still a work in progress- and at this point it feels like it may forever be a work in progress. Let that be a lesson to me about huge blog entries- Next time I'll break it up into smaller segments. Soooooo, in the face of adversity, I'm marching forth (even though it's April 18th HA!) I also discovered quite recently that, to my relative dismay, "Nature's Pantry" is a health food store my title isn't exactly original :( Nevertheless, I can't think of anything better to call it, so I'm going to continue with "Nature's Pantry" for now, as I feel it really captures the essence of the information I'm trying to share.

After another lovely nature walk yesterday in which I gathered a bunch more nettles and chives for my larder, I was disappointed that no cattails found their way into my path. I kept an eye peeled for these edible virtuoso's and lo and behold they're practically everywhere. Unfortunately, when I say practically everywhere, "everywhere" tends to be drainage ditches along busy highways. So today I dragged DH out to help me find some that could be reached without risking my neck or undue embarrassment, or worse, both. Who wants to die getting hit by an out of control car caused by the driver laughing uncontrollably at my adorable self slipping and falling on my tuckus in some muck? I'll pass, thanks. Besides, DH grew up here, and spent a lot of time in the local parks so surely he'd know where to find some cattails, right? Well, um, something like that. The conversation went something like this: Me: "Do you want to go foraging with me this afternoon?" Him: "Ok" Me: "Great! Where around here can we find some cattails? I don't really want to try harvesting them along the highway" Him: "well, I never actually look at any of the vegetation...." Me: "oh, well, um.... Where around here could we find a slow moving stream or better yet, a big pond?" Him: "oh, why didn't you say so- we'll try Olathe Lake and Cedar Lake".

And after securing a small trowel at the local home goods store (to dig up some chives), we were off. Our first attempt was fruitless, but then while trying to get to Cedar Lake, the back entrance of which was completely blocked by construction, we happened along a winding road through a business park, and to one side was a very large wash, and on the other a rather large pond (or was it a small lake?) We climbed out of the car cast a glance at the pond and immediately noticed a gander standing at high alert. The popular image of the Canada Goose is regal and majestic- see photo above. However, if you've ever been unlucky enough to encounter one up close, or heard stories of someone who has, you view them with caution or even suspicion. Me: "Where's his goose and the nest?" DH: "she's laying a little farther down the hill" Me: "how's about we try the wash sense in alarming that gander" DH: "good plan". I've lived my entire life without once getting the tar whuped out of me by a goose...and I intend to keep it that way. If you see a goose that looks like this one- go the other way- quickly. Geese are very dedicated parents, defending their nests from natural, native predators such as skunks, coyotes and foxes, as well as introduced ones like domestic cats and dogs. Sometimes that instinct gets thrown into overdrive and they will protect their nests from fishermen, hikers, and even parked cars. I said dedicated, not bright. Gentle reader, in case you don't already know, geese are equipped with a VERY effective means of self defense in the form of a bony knob on the tips of their wings which they use very expertly to beat their victims senseless, and a bill capable of inflicting a nasty bruising pinch. As Canada Geese are a protected species, I'm pretty sure that my first instinct would be to grab an attacking goose by the neck and give it a firm shake, and I also have no desire to find myself on the wrong side of a game warden or a hefty fine, I think it's probably best to just steer clear of geese- especially the nesting, overprotective, ill-tempered ones.

So into the wash we go, without a single twisted ankle. After a consulting the Wild Edibles book as to exactly how to harvest, we gathered a small armload of cattails, aiming to get as much of the white lower stem as possible. To harvest, it is recommended to peel back the 2 outermost leaves and slide your hand down the stalk as far as possible, then grab and pull the stem- which will break free of the roots with a gentle yet firm pull. DH was somewhat better at this than I was, and I modified my technique to just be grab the stalk as close to the ground as possible, work it back and forth a bit while pulling, then apply a bit more pull until it comes free. As there were only a small number of harvestable cattails in the wash, we decided to proceed with caution across the street to the gander-guarded pond.

DH: "We'll just stay on THIS side of the pond, ok?" Me: "Sounds like a plan. Maybe you should keep a lookout for that gander..." So I proceeded to harvest cattails while he watched for an angry aerial assault by the gander. He watched us with much interest, then decided to have a snack. I figured we were pretty much in the clear. I should note that the cattails by the pond were much larger AND easier to harvest. Apparently when the cattails are in an actual watery environment instead of just a wet one, they grow much bigger, much faster. Which is not surprising, given the fact that cattails are the most highly vascular plant I have ever laid eyes teachers take note, you don't need a microscope to see the water carrying cells in these plants. It's a brilliant lesson in transpiration. This particular pond was ringed by large ornamental limstone blocks, which the cattails were growing up through quite happily. It was easy to harvest from, but I will admit that my palms got pretty scraped up from the rocks, and reaching one's bare hand into a slimy, dark hole to pull out a weed is a little unsettling. I wasn't sure what else might be in that hole- like a cottonmouth or a giant spider. Luckily for me, and DH's blood pressure, only small spiders jumped out at me, and they were quickly scared away. (Small spiders = totally manageable and okay. Giant spiders = NOT OKAY) Eventually, the gander started to squawk and honk like mad, and when I looked up to ask DH if that was an angry "get away from my pond" sort of display the gander was also waiving his head around wildly, which, as it turns out, IS a "get away from my pond" sort of display. We left post haste.

Arriving home, I proceeded to prep my cattails for consumption. First, a quick bath to remove the bit of silt that was still on some of them. I now know it is best to remove all of the silt at the time of collection, as the cattails will happily suck it up into their stalks before you can get them into your sink. But, you live, you learn.

Some of the smaller shoots had less of the asparagus like core that I was seeking, but do have a very pale green part at the root end that is quite tasty as a field nibble, or in a salad. It's a bit like heart of palm in texture, but with a lot more flavor. The greener the part you're eating is, the stronger it tastes. And, if you're not careful, the more likely it will be to have an almost woody texture. So the smaller shoots I just cut the "salad" portion off of to eat in a salad later.

The larger tails I prepared so as to take advantage of the "Cossack Asparagus" core inside them. To do this, simply use a sharp knife and cut the white root end off of the stalk at approximately the place that it starts to take on a pigment- this may be green, or reddish. You may need to trim a bit more, but it's better to leave too much on than waste some of your valuable cattail.

Cattails are nicknamed "Cossack Asparagus" due to the asparagus-like taste, that apparently is highly sought after by Russians.

After you've trimmed off the less desirable (but still edible) leaves and woody stalk, you'll want to just run your thumbnail (or a knife) lightly down the length of the white stalk to split the outermost couple of layers of the cattail. Cattails grow in sort of rings, that in cross section look like the rings of a tree or an onion. Like an onion, they peel way quite easily. You'll find that when you remove the outermost 1 or 2 layers, you'll see that the inner core looks very different (instead of being lined like the outer layers, it appears more solid in color, opaque and soft looking.) It'll be pretty apparent to you when you see it that it is what you're looking for. This is the "Cossack Asparagus". Peel away the outer layers and discard them, and then the white core is ready to cook.

Out of about 7 or 8 lbs of harvested cattail plants, I got about 1 lb of edible bits, so it's kind of a crableg like endeavor. But well worth it! And plenty of cattails can be harvested in about 1/2 an hour- I was able to get most of the cattails in that amount of time on my own, as DH had to be the goose lookout for much of our excursion. So I maintain that it is a fun way to spend part of your weekend afternoon, and I really love to be able to "eat off the land"- even if I can't survive that way.

Although, to be honest, the "cossack asparagus" was SO delicious, that I could easily eat it every day. Do NOT miss this spring veggie!

Preparation is super simple- just boil a few min in salted water and add butter. You can also blanch it and freeze it for later consumption.

As an added bonus, you'll get a free bouquet of lovely greenery to decorate with for a while. The stalks will demand a lot of water to stay nice, but they are beautiful and a vibrant green, and if you are looking for something to decorate with that gives a lot of dimension, these 3 foot plants are perfect.

As an added bonus, or maybe a cautionary statement...your cat will be pretty certain that you have brought home the most wonderful thing EVER (unless you have pet rodents). I had a really hard time keeping my cats out of the cattails before I was ready to work with them, while I was working on them, once I was done....I'd suggest if you're going to use the leaves and stalks as a decorative bouquet, that if you have cats, you choose your vase carefully. You might want to use one that you're not too attached to.

The cattail is a virtual 3 season storehouse of edibles...the shoots, stems, roots, pollen, flowers....all edible. Starting in about March the cattail shoots start coming up from the ground and can be dug out of the mud and pickled. Later March and April bring the shoots above ground and you can harvest them as I did for the "asparagus". The asparagus part can also be pickled. As the season progresses, the cattail "heads" can be prepared much like corn on the cob. (you will be eating flower buds at this point) The buds can also be prepared similar to scalloped potatoes. As the flowers bloom, the pollen can be collected and used as a sort of flour/seasoning for biscuits, pancakes and so forth. The roots, best harvested in early spring for best yield, are strange and fibrous looking, and can be stripped of their core pulp to make flour- which can be used wet or dried. The core can also be eaten on its own, and once the flour has been removed they can be used to make jelly.

So obviously, the cattail is a major boon if you find yourself in an honest to god survival situation. But its so versatile and delicious that it can be used to supplement your daily diet for much of the year!

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