Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cascadia Wild, harvesting report-back on camass and coltsfoot

Since last fall I've been enjoying the classes, gatherings, and learning opportunities offered thanks to Cascadia Wild, a local non-profit whose mission is to "inspire personal connection to nature and community." Most of their activities center around peer-to-peer learning in a variety of formats. I've attended many of their Monday "community night" classes, where different people led discussions/classes on a variety of topics from bird language to plant tinctures to the primal mind. I learned a tiny bit of wilderness survival skills thanks to Aibric, who ran a few Saturday workshops leading up to an overnight wilderness survival trip to the woods, where we built debris shelters to sleep in through a drizzly night. It was incredibly empowering to realize that I could land in the middle of the woods with nothing and be able to make a shelter for myself to stay warm and dry, and I'm now experimenting with a debris shelter in our backyard to learn more about how it holds up in different seasons and what sort of ongoing maintenance is required.

One of my favorite Cascadia Wild associated activities has been the Ethnobotany Club. I joined them last fall for an outing to gather acorns and process them into flour, which was a lot of fun and included plenty of enjoyable diversions besides figuring out the acorn process! This year we've been meeting twice a month, once on a Monday afternoon to go somewhere local for scouting/learning/light harvesting, then once a month on a Saturday for an all-day trip to somewhere more remote where we can do more intensive harvesting. It's been a wonderful experience because it's a bunch of plant geeks with lots of knowledge and lots of books, with everyone sharing what they know, so I've learned a lot fast! I've sampled many new plants and been able to jump-start my plant identifying skills.

Harvest Results

Because I've found very little information, I want to share two report-backs on harvested roots I've tried on our outings: Camassia quamash, the common blue camass, and Petasites frigidus, the native coltsfoot.

Camassia quamash, Common camass

Our group found a dense camass patch in eastern Washington. My guess is that it was pretty heavily overgrown, as there were many camass plants smooshed together, and most of the bulbs we harvested were small, only 1/3 or 1/2 the 1" to 1.25" diameter size the bulbs reach at maturity. Probably after a couple of years of thinning via harvesting the patch will produce larger bulbs. Theressa and I harvested 1.25 pounds of bulbs, which was a relaxing task. I haven't made a digging stick for myself yet, and we didn't bring a spade or anything, so I just improvised with sticks to help loosen the soil and pop the bulbs out. The patch seemed to be in the middle of a very recently dried-up pond; the soil wasn't really wet or moist, but it hadn't dried to the hard surface of the other soil nearby, so getting the bulbs out was fairly easy.

The best information I've found on camass comes from Jon Kallas and can be found in back issues of his Wild Food Adventurer newsletter. Kallas describes the crucial skill of distinguising edible camass from death camass. For plants which weren't still exhibiting the giveaway blue flower, I carefully checked the leaves to be sure I was picking the right plant. I don't think we saw any death camass in the patch from which we harvested, though there were definitely death camass plants nearby. The other crucial task Kallas details is how to prepare the bulbs. Eaten raw they have a very starchy, mouth-clogging feel to them and aren't very palatable. Natives built large steam pits to cook 100+ bulbs, making a fire and then burying the pits to steam-cook for 1-2 days. In these modern times, when us white honkies can only come up with 1.25 pounds of roots at a time, a 2-day steam pit would be a bit silly. Kallas determined that pressure-cooking the roots for 9 hours gives close to optimal conversion of the indigestible starch inulin into digestible (and tasty!) sugars.

The other task we needed to do before cooking was to peel off the outer layer of dirty skin from each bulb. That seemed tedious, so the bulbs sat in a plastic bulb at room temperature for about three weeks before we got around to processing them. They didn't seem to deteriorate at all, presumably since they were essentially into their dormant period anyway. Removing the skins took a while, but got faster as I gained practice at kind of pinching and twisting to usually get the skin off in one movement. When it didn't work out it could take a little while to pick it all off. :/

When I had all the bulbs cleaned, we cooked them! I didn't know how much water the pressure cooker would steam off over 9 hours, so I filled it about one quarter full, covering maybe half the bulbs in water. I began cooking it in the evening, planning to let it cook overnight, but the swish-swish-swish-swish of the pressure cooker valve rocking back and forth quickly brought Theressa's head poking out of her bedroom asking if that racket was really going to continue overnight. So off went the heat, to be resumed the next morning. About eight hours after we began heating again the next morning, Theressa noticed it was smelling a bit scorched and turned off the heat. We'd run out of water in the pressure cooker. We decided to call that enough cooking and tried them out as soon as the pressure cooker cooled down.

I loved them! They were very sweet and I mostly just ate them like candy. Theressa wasn't quite as thrilled with them straight-up, though she thought she'd enjoy them quite well as proper dishes mixed with other foods. There was a slight butterscotch taste, but I'm not sure whether those were actually camass flavor or a result of having scorched slightly.

Petasites frigidus, Coltsfoot

I don't have much to report here, but since there's so little information I thought I'd pass along the little bit I discovered. We identified this species in wet soil along a river, so I pulled up four plants with rhizomes to try out. The roots were thin, not very substantial--a few inches long per rhizome and maybe 3-4 times the thickness of spaghetti. A few sources say that the roots were cooked by natives, but not many sources list this use and there isn't any detail as to how tasty they are. (One of the main citations was of roots being roasted by the Inuit, whom I believe were rather hard-up for any vegetables to eat and probably weren't too picky.)

It took about four days before I had a chance to roast the roots, and they'd dried out a bit and looked less palatable by the time I added it to a chicken dish going into the oven. We bake our chickens at 480 degrees in a Romertopf stoneware pot, cooking one hour with the top on, then 15 minutes with the top off. I tried one of the roots after the first hour, and it seemed cooked through and tender enough to eat. It wasn't bad, but it didn't make me want to gobble them down. I'm not very experienced at describing food tastes, so the only thing I can say is that it left me with an odd, slightly unpleasant aftertaste of...something like...fishiness?

Unfortunately, being the ignorant cook that I am, I didn't realize that the next 15 minutes of cooking with the pot top off greatly increased the heat blast on everything in the pot. 15 minutes later the chicken was nicely cooked, but the roots had been crisped to charred uselessness. :( (We've cooked lots of beets, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, etc with chickens in the past and didn't have this problem; I assume the problem this time was the fact that the roots were skinny instead of large fleshy chunks, and/or the fact that we only had half a dozen roots cooking instead of the normal chock-full pot, where maybe a larger mass of roots would have distributed heat better.

I'd like to try the roots again, being more careful to pull them out before they overcook and getting some different people to try them and see what they think. I'd also like to harvest the roots in fall or early spring; I harvested them at the worst time for roots since most of the energy has already gone up into the leaves. That might result in larger roots, and maybe the flavor would be better.


Anonymous said...

Cool deal....the ultimate test of your camas cookery, however, is the gas test.

How'd you do? :)


FarmerScrub said...

Oh yeah, excellent point! I totally forgot to comment on that because...there was no gas! Easy enough, huh? :)

FarmerScrub said...

I just got back from today's ethnobotany club outing, and figured I'd give a quick update. We harvested cattails today! Harvest procedures have already been written up in good detail in a few places so I won't rehash any of short, we harvested shoots, pollen, immature flower spikes, and roots. I hadn't expected roots to be usable at this time of year, but they were great! Our group made a fire and had a nice dinner from the harvest.

We also dug up three wapato plants to try to transplant; I'll try to remember to report back on how well they take!

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