When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered . . . the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . [They] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Dr. Leslie Bush, owner of Macrobotanical Analysis (www.macrobotanicalanalysis.com), joins us today for Part 2 of her conversation about cooking with native plants. See the Archives for June, 2014, for Part 1.
Leslie: Sure. The important thing to know here is that I don’t have a garden in my yard – I was cooking with native Texas plants that grow uncultivated* in many parts of the state. Lots of people are eating uncultivated plants these days, whether at the “World’s Best Restaurant”, sticking to an allegedly Paleo diet, or eating the weeds. I won’t say “wild” because human influence is so pervasive on the landscape, even in remote areas, that all of the planet is effectively under human management. (See the work of ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson.) Here are some things I’ve tried:
Kunuche Pecan Balls for Cherokee Nut Soup Traditional Cherokee nut soup is made from hickory nuts, usually black hickory (Carya texana). The most common hickory in the Austin area is pecan (Carya illinoinensis), so I made the soup balls from pecan nuts.
Step 1: Pecan Balls. To make the balls, I cracked each pecan nut on my concrete porch with a grinding stone, then picked out and swept away the larger pieces of pecan shell. I put the nutmeats and the remaining bits of inner shell into a basalt molcajete and ground it into a coarse paste. I formed the paste into balls about 2 inches in diameter. The balls can be frozen for a few months or put in a ziplock in the refrigerator for a few days until you’re ready to use them.
Step 2: Pecan Soup. To reconstitute the balls into soup, just add boiling water and stir. Use one ball for a large coffee mug. Let the soup settle for a few moments so that the pecan shells drop to the bottom. Be sure not to drink the last drops, or you’ll end up with shells in your mouth! You can flavor the soup with dried cranberries (my favorite), dried corn, or even bits of turkey jerky.
Sumac-ade This recipe for sumac-ade comes from my friend Neal Stilley, whose many talents include primitive arts such as fire-
making and cooking uncultivated plants. The batch of sumac-ade I made this spring was from flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) harvested in February. Harvesting when the fruits have been on the plant for such a long time doesn’t make the best-tasting tea. I’m eager to try another batch in a few of weeks when the fruits will be fresh.
- Wash sumac fruits under cold water.
- Bring 1 part sumac fruits and 5 parts water to a simmer, being careful not to boil.
- Simmer for 2-5 minutes, then turn off heat and let stand for 10-15 minutes.
Mesquite Cake Grinding mesquite pods into flour is a tedious undertaking. It’s probably best done with a big group of girls and women, sitting in the shade, singing songs, sipping cool beverages, and speculating on the activities of your neighbors. In ancient times, Native women used a gyratory crusher, a sort of funnel-shaped metate, to crush mesquite pods with a heavy wooden pestle. The crushed pods fell through the hole into a basket. The beans and the brittle, outer pod were winnowed out, and the inner pod parts were re-ground into fine flour. Since I live in central Texas and not the Sonoran Desert, I had to make my pods “desert-dry” by roasting them in the oven at low heat before I tried to grind them. I used a flat-bottomed cobble to grind pods on my concrete porch, but it was a very slow process without the walls of a metate to keep the pods under my grinding stone. I decided pretty quickly that
producing and tasting a couple of teaspoons of flour would be enough old-school experience to satisfy me. Most modern mesquite eaters use a high-powered blender or a hammermill to process mesquite – and now I know why! Mesquite flour is very sweet, even before you add sugar to the recipe. The high sugar content makes baking with it difficult –the centers of baked goods tend to stay soft and mushy. I recommend baking very thin things such as these thin yellow cakes I made with mesquite flour from The Mesquitery.
Yucca Petals (raw) The flowers of all the yucca species I’ve tried have been edible and delicious. They
have a texture like green onions but with more substance. Most plants I’ve tried taste like radishes. A few lack that spicy kick and taste more like carrots. Some people eat the pistils and all the inner flower parts, but I stick to the petals. You can even eat them straight from landscaping in the mall. (See blog articles from the Archives for June and July, 2012, for my own yucca experimentation–MSB.)
Woodsorrel Greens (raw) Woodsorrels have cute little heart-shaped leaves in a clover-like configuration. Here in central Texas, we have two woodsorrels: yellow woodsorrell (Oxalis dillenii), a branched plant with small yellow flowers, and Drummond’s oxalis
(Oxalis drummondii), a single-stemmed plant with larger, pink flowers and a bulb below ground. The wonderfully sour, refreshing leaves can be sprinkled on salads or tossed in cream sauce over pasta. Be careful not to eat too many of the raw leaves at a time, though: oxalic acid interferes with iron absorption, and too much of it can be very serious for people with impaired kidneys.
Commercially Available Sources For the May meeting of the Native Plant Society, I rounded out the table of native plant snacks with purchases from the local grocery store: agave syrup, prickly pear soda, nopalitos, and pecans. I’ll have to see what’s growing in my yard for the Caldwell County Genealogical and Historical Society next month . . . .