Taste of the Past with Leslie Bush

 

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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.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

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:

Kunuch Cake

Kunuch Cake

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-

Simmering Sumac-ade

Simmering Sumac-ade

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

Mesquite Cake

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

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

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

Yucca Blossoms

Yucca Blossoms

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

Wood Sorrell

Wood Sorrell

(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 . . . .

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

How to Eat Bugs and Like It

Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of Wild Basin Preserve

Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of Wild Basin Preserve

My guest today is Dr. John C. Abbott, Director of the Wild Basin Creative Research Center (http://think.stedwards.edu/wildbasin/) in Austin, Texas, a part of St. Edward’s University.

Thank you for being with us today, John. Tell us a little bit about Wild Basin. The Wild Basin Creative Research Center serves as an extension of the St. Edward’s University main campus and includes 227 acres within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system. The preserve is open to the public for trail hiking and events. Wild Basin also offers volunteer opportunities and guided school tours.The Wild Basin Creative Research Center is an educational resource that provides extensive learning opportunities for students and the general public.

I understand you study dragonflies and damselflies. How did you get interested in insects? I have been interested in insects since I was a little kid. They have always fascinated me, I think largely because of their amazing diversity in numbers, form and behavior. I didn’t, however, develop a particular interest in dragonflies and damselflies until I was an undergrad in college. I was helping a graduate student in the lab I worked in, when he pointed a dragonfly out to me and said, no one is really working on this group, you should….the rest is history.

Insects in Thai market

Insects in Thai market

 I heard you say something about eating insects. Are you kidding? Not at all. The US and Western Europe are among the few cultures that don’t regularly eat insects. This isn’t because other countries are poor and they have no choice, it is because it makes sense, both nutritionally and efficiently to raise, harvest, and eat insects. They contain large amounts of protein and other nutritionally beneficial vitamins and minerals we need. They are abundant; there are more insects on the planet than any other group of animals (some 1 million species currently known). In fact, they are so numerous that they are impossible to keep out of our food supply, even if we wanted. I call this FDA sanctioned entomophagy, which is the practice of eating insects.  The government allows a certain amount of insects (or insect parts) in all our foods because you simply can’t keep them out. If you have ever eaten peanut butter, salads, or fig newtons, you have eaten insects.Most cultures around the world actively practice entomophagy (or eating insects). In most Asian markets, you will find numerous types of insects available. In Mexico they have a stink bug festival where not only do they eat stink bugs, but they also crown a Ms. Stink Bug!

Why would anybody want to eat bugs? Insects are plentiful, easily raised or harvested, and nutritionally beneficial.

Bug sushi

Bug sushi

They are also a sustainable food resource. So it is a simple matter of economics, for your pocketbook and the planet. Raising insects is much cheaper and has much less of an impact on the planet than see raising cattle. An economist at the University of Wisconsin, David Madison, once calculated that 1 person could collect 18.5 lbs. of Mormon crickets in a single hour. This many crickets contain 23,500 calories or the same as 87 chili dogs, 49 slices of pizza, or 43 big macs….think of how much effort has to go into producing those foods vs. just one hour collecting insects. Companies are ultimately concerned with their bottom dollar recognize this. One common example of an insect that is regularly used in our American food supplies is the cochineal. It is a type of scale insect that you can find on prickly pear cacti in the south. They actually raise them on cacti in large greenhouses in Mexico. They produce a deep red pigment that is better than artificial pigments for food coloring. So, many bright red foods (Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice, Gummy Bears, Mentos, Maraschino Cherries, etc…) get their red color from these insects. Companies list it write on the ingredients label.

Bug pizza

Bug pizza

Can you share any good recipes with us? The typical insect has a nutty taste to it, but in general they will pick up the flavor of whatever you cook them with or the spices that you use. So, we (well, really my wife, she is the cook in the family) often make desert items with insects when we are introducing the idea to others, because who doesn’t like sweets! You can also make some nutritionally healthy flour from insects, by drying them and then grinding them up. Some of my favorite items are Chocolate Chirp Cookies and Waxworm Fritters. There are actually a number of cookbooks out there focused on insect recipes (http://tinyurl.com/op4d2th). There is even a newsletter (http://www.foodinsectsnewsletter.org/)!

Are all insects edible? What should the novice insect gourmet look for? No, some insects are not edible because

Grubs and insects are eaten in many parts of the world.

Grubs and insects are eaten in many parts of the world.

they are toxic, or simply so small or hard to collect it wouldn’t make sense to harvest them as food. One source lists some 1400+ insects (out of the 1 million currently known) that are regularly eaten around the world. The big groups are ants, bees, and wasps, beetles, butterflies, and finally grasshoppers, roaches and crickets. It is the softer-bodied immatures of most of these insects that are used for food. They are more easily digested and easier to collect, so we are talking about eating caterpillars or beetle grubs, not an adult butterfly or big, hard beetle. You want to look for easily collected or obtained insects to use in food. Many insects are easily raised in large numbers. A good place to start is with mealworms (beetle larvae) that can be easily obtained from your local pet store.

Chapaulines, or grasshoppers, in Oaxaca, Mexico

Chapaulines, or grasshoppers, in Oaxaca, Mexico

Where can I try some? In the US, most edible insects are sold as novelty items. A company by the name of HotLix makes lollipops with crickets, mealworms and scorpions for example. You can often find these in novelty stores, but they are also available online. You might try local grocery stores catering to specific ethnic groups (Asian markets, Fiesta, etc…). Little Herds (http://littleherds.org/) is a local nonprofit that just got started. They are actively promoting insects as a sustainable food resource and have events where you can try eating insects. If you want to try cooking your own insects, you should make sure the insects have not been exposed to any pesticides. In other words, it isn’t wise to collect insects locally, especially in urban environments, because of all the insecticides that are used. There are several companies however, that raise insects specifically to be used as a food source for pet reptiles and amphibians. You can purchase insects from them, knowing they have not been exposed to insecticides and then cook them for use in your own recipes.

Many thanks, John. I learned a lot. Time for some crunchy cricket chips!

 

 

 

Cooking Wild Plants with Leslie Bush

 

Hot Acorn Bread Fresh From the Oven

Hot acorn bread fresh from the oven

My guest blogger today is Dr. Leslie Bush, (https://Macrobotanicalanalysis.com), an expert in edible wild plants. In her day job, she identifies plant remains from archaeological sites. But at home she like to cook with wild plants that she gathers or even finds online.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: My interest in wild cooking comes from history and archaeology, from wanting to understand what common foods of the distant past tasted like. I also wanted to share the dishes with archaeologists and native plant enthusiasts here in central Texas.  Acorn-producing oak tress are common in many parts of  Texas, and acorns were used extensively as food by ancient people.

Boiling acorns

Boiling acorns

Friends and the Internet both told me I should make recipes that mix acorn flour or mesquite flour with wheat flour and leavening, to give people a chance to taste the unique ingredients in a form they’d enjoy. Despite their advice, I decided to be a purist in my first attempt. I harvested acorns from the red oak tree in my front yard.  I discarded acorns with obvious worm holes and those that floated in water. After an hour’s soaking, I shelled the acorns by cracking them with a river cobble on my concrete porch. I wasn’t  particularly careful about removing all the thin film of inner husk that clings to the acorns. I also used fresh acorns, not ones that had aged for at least a year, as she recommends. Once the acorns were shelled, I boiled them to remove the tannins. I was careful to make sure they never cooled down, transferring them from pot of simmering water to another. I used ten(!) changes of water, and the nuts were still fairly bitter.

Many people recommend grinding the acorns into flour before leaching out the tannins, so working with whole acorns is

Roasted acorns

Roasted acorns

probably another reason my acorns were bitter. (Apparently, you can wrap the ground acorn flour in cheesecloth and leach out the tannins by placing it in running water. I’ve heard putting the flour in the back tank of a toilet is great because the water isn’t wasted and gets changed frequently, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.) For the final step, I rubbed the acorns in oil to replace what they’d lost in boiling, then roasted them in the oven. They had the taste and texture of bitter corn nuts.

Mary: I learned that acorns are high in carbohydrates and fat, which is good if you are living entirely on native plants and animals, as native peoples did. One hundred grams of acorns has about 387 calories, 41 g carbs, 24 g fat, and 6.2 g of protein.

Acorn Bread

Acorn bread

Leslie: After that first round of acorn adventures, I knew I should order acorn flour to make acorn bread this spring. Even processed by a pro, the flour still has a slight tannic bite, but it bakes up wonderfully. I can see how people crave the taste of acorns! This is the recipe I used:http://www.food.com/recipe/acorn-bread-267655.

I also want to share my recipe for yaupon tea. Our native Texas yaupon is a species of evergreen holly with the ominous botanical name Ilex vomitoria. It’s a close cousin to the plant that makes yerba mate, Ilex paraguariensis. Both plants have caffeine in their leaves and make excellent tea. In its strongest form, yaupon tea is the Black

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Drink that Native ancestors used in ceremonies across much of what is now the eastern United States. I like to make yaupon as a gentle green tea. The taste is very similar to yerba mate, but the homemade yaupon is much fresher – and it’s free!  Yaupon may be harvested at any time of year. Cultivated dwarf yaupon and pencil yaupon varieties are also acceptable. Any fruits should be removed prior to toasting. Here’s my recipe:

Yaupon Tea

Toast yaupon leaves and small branches in shallow pan or baking sheet for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Higher temperatures will result in a darker tea with more caffeine. Leaves should fall from most branches during the toasting process. Remove any remaining leaves from all but the smallest branches and discard bare branches.

Toasted leaves may be cooled and placed in a sealed container for up to three months.

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Measure 1 part tea to 4 or 5 parts water. Boil water and pour over tea leaves. Steep until tea reaches desired concentration. Tea leaves may also be brought to a boil in the water, although this produces a harsher tea.

 

Recommended Resources

Parker, Julia F. It will live forever: Traditional Yosemite indian acorn preparation. 

Buy acorn flour http://buyacornflour.com

 

Cookin’ in the Canyon

 

Eagle Nest Canyon near Langtry, Texas

Eagle Nest Canyon near Langtry, Texas

In April I had the experience of cooking for two weeks for an archaeological crew of 14 currently working in Eagle Nest Canyon. This was as close to cooking for cowboys on the range as I will ever get, and I had always wanted to do that. The chuck box was calling my name! Well, really I wasn’t going to be cooking IN the canyon, but rather in the wonderful kitchen of the Shumla School, temporary headquarters for the Ancient Southwest Texas archaeological project from Texas State University.

Being a planner, I made out menus, downloaded recipes, gathered ingredients and equipment, and took off for the Lower Pecos. I was going to cook everything from scratch, wholesome, real food, with plenty of fresh vegetables and even homemade bread. I could do this, even though I was the only kitchen volunteer the first week. After all, I was only cooking dinner. The crew made their own breakfast, took sandwiches for lunch, and washed their own dishes. What could be hard?

Shumla School Dining Hall and Kitchen Building

Shumla School Dining Hall and Kitchen Building

There were various things I hadn’t counted on, however. Like the stove. A huge commercial kitchen stove, with six burners and a grill. It looks intimidating, but after a day or so, I got the hang of it (the ovens are a bit contrary).  Something else I had to contend with was simply

Shumla's Commercial Stove with Six Burners and Grill.

Shumla’s Commercial Stove with Six Burners and Grill.

finding the stuff to cook with. Where are the pots? ( in the metal cabinet) Where is a spoon? (in the other room) Where are the sharp knives? (there weren’t any–they were all too dull to cut water). Dry food was kept in two huge metal cabinets, and spices were kept in another room–a gigantic pantry. Two freezers held an assortment of stuff, but I basically had to empty them out to find anything. The commercial refrigerator was crammed with my milk, your milk, our milk, and everything else.

Snake Catcher Hanging by the Kitchen Door

Snake Catcher Hanging by the Kitchen Door

I was also overly ambitious. I had planned to make cookies, a main dish, a side dish, a salad, and

dessert everyday. Which I did the first two days. It nearly killed me. I worked on dinner for seven hours on Day 2, which was too much. I was pooped. It took me those two days to get the feel of the group I was cooking for: 1) they didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and 2) they liked meat.

I had planned for big appetites.  I downloaded several Pioneer Woman recipes (thanks Ree Drummond!) , and they were big hits.  Make her Pizza Lasagna for a crowd!  Delicious.  It uses both ground beef and ground breakfast sausage, then adds pepperoni to the mix. She also uses three

cheeses in this dish: ricotta, mozzerella, and parmesan. I made fresh focaccia bread one night, and corn bread another. I did make several desserts, and my favorite was a chocolate chip cake with chocolate icing.  I was prepared to make some incredible Martha Stewart fig bars too, but had to wait for those until I got home.  Somehow at the end of the day,  beer won out over sweets for most of the crew.

Chocolate Chip Cake

Chocolate Chip Cake

The second week another very welcome volunteer came to help in the kitchen. Michael, thank you!  She was fantastic! Well, she too started out fast and hard, then burned out.  By the end of the second

Focaccia Bread

Focaccia Bread

week she was down for the count. So much for my fantasy of cooking over a campfire for the roundup.  Cooking from scratch for a bunch of hungry people every day is hard work! But I think the crew appreciated it, because after my two weeks was up, they had to go back to cooking for themselves when they got in from working down in the canyon.  Many of us know that routine. Only for them, the nearest fast food joint is about an hour away. They don’t really have a choice. Somebody has to cook to feed them all.

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!

Cooking with Yucca

Here are two ways to use black yucca seeds in your not-so-survivalist cooking.  First, I gently toasted the seeds in a dry frying pan on the stove. Then I sprinkled some on a salad, seen below.  The next day I got a wild hare (hair? ) and ground them up as a coffee substitute.  I confess I did add a little real coffee as well.  The result was great.  Tasted like toasty coffee! Ok, friends and neighbors, please send me more suggestions for cooking with yucca or other native plants and uses for sotol!