As our foraging workshop continued, Doug took us to a field that had what I thought to be overgrown grass. We see it everywhere here in the desert Southwest...its called forest fire kindling. But as we looked closer there were a few different edibles among that weed.
Cattails are gathered for many parts of their body and have strong spiritual use among Native Americans. At this time of year only the root or korm is gathered for drying and grinding into flour. Another part to the plant is the stalk. Imagine pulling the top out of a piece of field grass - the type you might pull to chew on, where the inner stalk pulls from the outer sheath. Cattails have the same structure. This piece is similar in texture to water chestnuts and requires no preparation. There is little fiber so it is easy to eat or cut up for stir fry or stew. Its important to not over harvest this plant as it is somewhat fragile in the Southwest. The pollen is also edible:
Beautiful bright yellow pollen is gathered in late spring from the top of the plant. The large fuzzy brown section is the female part while the stick above the fuzzy section is male. Gently bend the stalk over and tap the pollen into your gathering container. The pollen can be eaten without preparation. My intent is to dust goat cheese and age it.
Doug next shared Elm bark with us - not the tough outer bark, but rather the fibrous, paper-like inner bark. The texture is mucous (rather unpleasant) and the flavor mild. Doug was very excited about this for me but it didn't spark much energy for me. He suggested it could be used as a thickener or to bring out sweetness in a dish. The leaves, when young, are also edible as are their flowers.
Evening Primrose is rich with essential fatty acids from the seeds. This is a biannual so the seeds will only come up in the second year. These are gathered around November after the first freeze. At first they will taste bitter but quickly turn to an egg-like taste. This might be fun to do a playful creme brulée dish. The plant can be identified by its small yellow flower which is also edible and quite delicious.
The primrose leaves themselves are also good and are typically gathered at the root of the stalk. The baby leaves are fine raw and the larger leaves should be cooked in water for about an hour or until soft to remove the caustic quality. The roots can also be gathered, smashing the meat off from the woodiness and cooked into a porridge. The root is no good in its second year. Doug said this and sweet clover were his two favorite winter roots.
Wild sunflowers are plentiful in our area and have a 45-day harvest window. Any given stand of sunflowers will have a two week window. When the flower gets to full color but has not released its seeds, pinch off the flower, dry it, stomp on it in a sack and winnow. This can be eaten ground, shell and all. Doug said, "Shells have always been the stopper for people with wild foods. But they're completely edible."
The plant that garnered the most excitement was Wild Amaranth. I remember amaranth being very common on my trip to Oaxaca last year, and found it similar in use to quinoa. You can in fact cook it just like quinoa, but Doug explained the process of popping it. Simply heat a cast iron pan without oil and add the grain. If its hot enough the grain will pop within seconds. If its too hot the grain will burn.
The seed is gathered after the first frost all the way through March - so a very long season if you can beat the winds. Simply snap off the heads, drop into a canvas bag and stomp. Remove the large stems and pour the remainder into a second bag. Stomp. Go back and forth a few times then lay the grain on a tarp in the wind. The wind will blow away the waste and leave the seeds. Doug showed us a smaller version of winnowing in his hands. "Winnowing immediately connects you with the ancestral world." Here is the grain after stomping:
And the seeds after the wind:
Nice flavor and something I am asking my foraging team to find for me. Amaranth is an annual and when young (12") the greens can be steamed or boiled until just bright.
A Lambsquarter plant lay a foot away from our amaranth plant. The greens are edible especially when young. It is similar to Yellow Dock and Curley Dock which have big bold flavors. Bring water to a full boil and cook for a short time with the lid off until you smell the bad flavors boil off. The seeds can be gathered similar to amaranth. Some lambsquarter varieties have grey coated seeds which are not quite as good as the black seeds, but are edible albeit bitter.
Sycamore tree paper bark is a great tea but don't consume too much or drink it too hot.
Mesquite is a classic food in the Southwest. Great for firewood, the pods/beans are edible and very tasty. Doug calls this a "main food" meaning, plentiful, easy to gather, easy to prepare and easy to digest. The plant is also a nitrogen fixer which allows other plants to grow in the soil.
The beans are too bitter when green, but once the green is gone they are ready to be enjoyed. Similar to carob, the bean can be chewed easily when no longer green but still young. It is best to gather these off the ground noting that each tree will have a different flavored bean. Its best to taste test before gathering the beans - if its not sweet, don't gather. You can simply eat as a snack (worms are just a given with these), or you can boil the pods for 45 minutes, mash them, dilute and run through a screen. Discard the wood and enjoy the porridge, or reduce the porridge until it becomes molasses. Another way of using the pod is to grind it once it is fully dry but not before the sugars release and use the flour. Finally, you can heat on a hot stone (or cast iron) and toast for about 20 minutes and enjoy them like potato chips.
Popatillo/Mormon Tea are another prolific plant in our area.
This one had been chewed up by deer but I think you can imagine what it looks like. It has a very high mineral content and is enjoyed by a short 5 minute simmer in water and then steep to taste.
Junipers are tricky. They are everywhere but not all are good. There are three functional categories of juniper: the small berries, the larger (Alligator juniper) and the shaggy bark juniper. The small berries are more medicinal but 8-12 berries can be used in marinade. The Alligator berries are not very tasty and have too many volatile oils (astringent). The shaggy bark berries are the best - sweet with only one seed. Typically found on Southern slopes, the drier you gather the berries the better the taste. Simply crush and remove the seed or cook in water and use the juice.
Finally, we look at the Nopal and rickly pear tuna. The tuna is ripe when it falls off or is easily knocked off. It has known diabetic remedies and cooling properties. To juice simply smash them in a 5-gallon bucket, add water, strain into a second bucket, add more water and strain.
You can make a great vinegar with the juice by letting it sit in a jar covered in cloth. Age the juice for about 20 day until a white film forms, remove the film and finish for another month and a half.
The fruit can also be quartered and dried in the sun for a snack fruit.
The paddles are cleaned by rubbing two rocks in a circular motion on either side. Then break off the paddle and use the rocks to continue cleaning it. With a knife, cut along the edge to pull the paddle in a mirror imaged two halves. Gather the gel. Using a fork and then a spoon, scrape and remove the coral. The gel can be added to cornmeal, water and salt for a bread, and there is no need for an egg nor milk. Just be sure the bread is fully baked or you'll get a stomach ache. If the batter is aged overnight the flavors will be even more enjoyable. Baby paddles can simply be cleaned and eaten. The meat can be added to soups and stews. The classic Mexican treatment is in eggs. The slime can be removed with cold water.
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