Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cattails - Summer Consideration

A quick search of my blog will show you that I love using cattails on our restaurant menu. As a kid I was raised around cattails every time we drove to our cabin near Ste. Genevieve, MO. Along every roadside in the ditches, surrounding every slimy pond, and lining every sewer runoff there were cattails. At that time my only goal was to wait for them to become mature and puffy so I could whack them with a stick and make them explode into a million little parachutes (no wonder they were everywhere - I was dispersing the seeds). But now as a chef I have a different appreciation.

Back at our Winter Foraging Workshop, Doug Simons introduced myself and my foraging team to cattails as food. We had all heard of it being eaten, but we had never actually tried. At that time our focus was the root systems which Doug suggested be cooked into a porridge of sorts. I tried it once with no success (I later strategized that I needed to dehydrate, grind and then reconstitute it). But then came Spring. All of a sudden little shoots were coming up around all of the old dry stalks...and I pulled a few up and nibbled! Cucumber. Water chestnut? Baby corn? The flavors were familiar yet alien, but good. The raw cattail shoots quickly joined my menu both as garnish and centerpiece. But those shoots have grown and are practically inedible.

With summer comes the next phase of cattail eating - the heads. Below are a series of pictures (all from the same day) showing the cattail heads in various stages of development. My goal on this day was to gather pollen which I did quite successfully.

Here is a head still in its paper sheath. This will be ready for pollen or "cob" eating in just a few days.

Next, you can see a cob starting to poke its head out. The head (what we think of as the brown fuzzy part) is considered the female, while the little stick poking its way out above the furry brown is the male. The male drops its pollen on the female and the cycle begins anew. This plant I allowed to continue to mature.

This is maybe another day older...still not quite ready although I certainly could pop this off and gnaw on it or better yet, saute it.

Bigger, older, completely ready for gnawing...but I'm more interested in pollen today. Time to pop that hoodie off sister!

And, now too late. Once its the big, brown, beautiful cob that we all know and love its not really palatable. Doug said it was edible, and I've heard of people cooking it into bread and such, it doesn't fit my criteria for food worth foraging. So I leave it for people making Thanksgiving centerpieces.

And here's my prize for the day. See the stalk on the left? Notice that there's a top and bottom? That's the male and female. The female can be eaten although I left it to do its work. But the male was generous with its pollen giving me plenty and keeping enough for its vertical courtship.

And unlike most of my foraging trips, my faithful companion, Lexi, couldn't care less. She just wanted to play in the pond.

When we get to fall, the cattail will change in its usefulness once again. And until then...

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