Saturday, April 14, 2012

Edamapleme and other Sidewalk Salads

David Cozzo teaching me how to enjoy Redbud blossoms

The forager mustn’t wait for weekend farmers’ markets or hunt down ethnic food carts to find streetside snacks.  Boulevard bonanzas await the keen eyed and wild minded in urban areas throughout America.  Last weekend while strolling the Denver sidewalks with Alex and David Cozzo, kindred foodies and ethnobiologists, we munched our way to the Botanic Gardens popping fresh Mallow leaves (Malva sp.), tender Elm samara (Elymus sp.), young Basswood leaves (Tillia sp.), sweet nectared Norway Maple (Acer plantanoides) and Redbud (Cercis canadensis) flowers, and most especially, the young pea-like seeds of Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum).

A peeled maple shoot in perfect condition for eating
Maples captured my interest two years ago when I learned that the flowers, shoots, sap, cambium, and even seeds of Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) were eaten by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest (See Turner 1995).  I found the flowers to be a passable (and colorful) addition to salads, and the pealed shoots to have a refreshing crunch.  However, travel and some monomaniacal moments of thesis work limited my experience with the cambium to a taste, and kept me from dabbling in maple tapping and samara snacking.

Spring emerging Silver Maple samara
With my unfinished business with Bigleaf Maple in the back of my mind, I was pleased to see young samara hanging from the otherwise bare branches of Silver Maple along the streets of Denver.  Silver Maples form samara in the spring (before leaf-out), unlike the summer (or at least much after leaf out) forming  samara of Bigleaf maple.  Alex, Katrina and I split open the tender samara and tentatively tasted the turgid green seeds.  They were great!

A Silver Maple seed perfect for eating
When full sized but still young enough to be soft and milky, they have a flavor similar to snap peas or raw shell peas.  The seeds solidify and darken with age, and the flavor simultaneously becomes astringent and not as enjoyable.  Alex had the great idea of making a wild version of edamame with the tender seeds; he boiled the samara for 5 minutes before draining, salting, and serving them.  These Edamapleme proved to be delicious hors d’oeuvres to our Elk burger dinner.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rocky Mountain Wild Food Road Trip

Another great road trip!
Every spring for the last 35 years, people throughout North America who are interested in the interactions between humans and the environment have gathered for the Society of Ethnobiology Conference.  This year, the conference was hosted by the Denver Botanic Gardens on the flanks of the Rocky Mountains.  Katrina and I decided to drive to the conference in order to explore a part of the country we haven’t previously traveled, get some birding in, and most importantly, experiment with the many edible wonders along the way.  Our route took us from Bellingham across Snoqualmie Pass to Yakima, and southeast through the Blue Mountains in Oregon and along the Columbia Plateau through southern Idaho and Northern Utah to Salt Lake City.  From there we crossed the Uinta Mountains and the Colorado Rockies.

Sumac fruit
We rushed out of rainy western Washington and made it over the pass before too much snow fell.  Sunny eastern Washington skies greeted us and we slowed our pace to explore the Yakima River between the towns of Yakima and Wapato.  The town of Wapato is of course named after my favorite root vegetable Sagittaria latifolia (see my post on Arrowhead for more on Sagittaria), but it was too early in the spring to spot any of the emergent leaves in the slow moving backwaters of the Yakima River.  We did, however, find a number of other edibles including Cattails (Typha latifolia), the young basal leaves of Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), and remnant fall fruits of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), which were still delightfully sour.

A basal rosette of tender young Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) leaves
I have eaten the peeled raw flower stalks of many species of Dock (Rumex sp.) but have never tried the leaves.  “Wild Man” Steve Brill recently posted on the Forageahead Listserve that the young leaves of Dock are good after they are cooked (evidently superb in lasagna).  I found the young leaves of Curly Dock to be tender and mild flavored when raw, but they left me with an acrid aftertaste that burned the back of my throat the same way that Siberian Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia siberica) does after it has started to flower.
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)
I was also very excited to see the emerging flowers of Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) for the first time, and we easily spotted the bright yellow flowers throughout much of the rest of our trip to Denver.

Catherine Creek State Park
We pressed on through the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon, and after scouting out the dumpster at the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Pendleton Oregon (no shirts or blankets to be had, just bits of yarn), headed into the Wallowa Mountains and set up camp at Catherine Creek State Park.  Temperatures dropped as the sun set and it even snowed about ¼ inch while we roasted sausages on the campfire.

A steel Camas digging stick
The next morning we went to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City Oregon and I was pleased to see that the Center included some materials on Native American Foods, including a basket of dried Camas (Camassia sp.) and a peculiar digging stick forged out of steel with a top handle made of Bison horn.  Inspired by the heritage trail, I decided to try and find the house that my Dad was born in near Boise.  With Dad on the phone directing us by looking on Google Earth and summoning memories from when he was 4 years old, we got pretty close.  His old house is gone and the area has turned into ritzy 1- 5 acre equestrian estates.

Pronghorn Antelope
Continuing east on I-84 we started to see Pronghorn Antelope on the side of the road.  We crossed into Utah and drove to the Great Salt Lake, where we intended to spend some time birding the next day.  We laid out our bedrolls on a sandy beach and enjoyed the moonlit night.  The next morning we got up early and drove to Antelope Island State Park, which is in the middle of the Great Salt Lake but is connected to the mainland by a causeway.  The birding was amazing and we even saw a few Bison and Pronghorn.

Massive clusters of Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) samara
By mid-afternoon the birding had slowed down, so we left the Island.  While at a gas station I noticed some Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) trees that were just loaded with edible samara (winged seeds).  They were in the peak of their season and I munched several handfuls.  When still green, elm samaras make an amazing addition to salads.  They have a flavor and texture that is like a cross between spinach and oatmeal.  They are a very common street tree and we saw them planted abundantly throughout Salt Lake City, Eastern Utah, Boulder and Denver Colorado, as well as Yakima, WA.  They aren’t as common in Western WA, but they are definitely around.  If you haven’t tried Elm samara (particularly Siberian Elm), I highly recommend them, they are one of my favorite salad greens.

After collecting a small stash of samara, we climbed into the Wasatch Mountains and followed HWY 40 into the Uinta Mountains to Starvation State Park in eastern Utah.  The park surrounds a reservoir of the dammed Strawberry River and is made up of exceedingly beautiful red sandstone, dry Juniper and Agave scrublands, and nice sandy pocket beaches.  The tremolo call of loons lulled us to sleep as the stars twinkled through the thin atmosphere.  We rose early the next morning to find the tracks of a coyote who had circled us as we slept.

Rising early in a world full of mystery

Ponderosa berries
We continue east along HWY 40 as the day began to warm and come to life.  Our next stop was Dinosaur National Monument where we saw some amazing Allosaurus fossils.  The Allosaurus were a similar size and shape as the T-Rex, but lived almost 100 million years earlier.  We also saw some spectacular petroglyphs, mountain bluebirds, and colorful spring wildflowers.  That night we camped near Kremmling CO, at the base of the Rockies and near the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Only a short drive from Boulder, the next day we took back roads through the mountains and enjoyed the scenery.  I optimistically tried the young cones of Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa).  Last year, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner told me that young Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) cones could be eaten, so I thought it was worth experimenting with the cones of Ponderosa Pine.  They were no bigger than an inch long and ¾ of an inch wide and required a bit of twisting to remove them from the branch.  Raw, I found them to be more tender than I expected and milder than Juniper berries, but still very resin flavored.  Boiling for 5 minutes softened them further, but they still were too resinous to enjoy more than one.

That evening we met Katrina’s brother Derek in Boulder, who kindly put us up for the evening, and the next day we drove to the Denver Botanic Gardens for the Society of Ethnobiology Conference.
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cooking in a Bentwood Box


Boiling at the Burke
Prior to the trade of steel cookware in the Pacific Northwest, the Native Americans prepared many foods in wooden cooking boxes.  Instead of putting the box on a heat source, red hot rocks were placed inside of the cooking box to cook food.  As you can imagine, some knowledge and specialized equipment are needed to safely heat cooking rocks and build a cooking box that doesn’t leak.  This weekend as part of the Burke Museum’s Traditional Northwest Native Foods and Diets event, I demonstrated how to boil water in a bentwood box.  What follows is a brief discussion of the equipment and some photos.

A storage Box on display at the Burke
The Box:
Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest constructed boxes from two types of wood for a variety of purposes.  The planks of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Alaskan Yellow Cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) were carefully split from standing trees or fallen logs with yew wood (Taxus brevifolia) wedges.  These plants were then painstakingly hewn into boards of a consistent thickness using stone adzes.  Three kerfs (grooves) of nearly the thickness of the board were chiseled into the board at regular intervals so as to provide bending points for the wood.  The board was then soaked and heated/steamed until the wood was soft enough to bend into a rectangular shape around a wooden base.  All the joints were then fastened with pegs or laced with Red Cedar or Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) roots.

Clay sealed joint
Bentwood boxes were used for cooking as well as storing food, clothing, and ceremonial items.  Cooking boxes ranged in size from that of a medium saucepan for everyday cooking to colossal vats capable of holding hundreds of gallons for rendering eulachon grease.  Whatever the size, the cooking boxes had to be water tight, and that is where the bentwood design really shines.  Because the sides of the box are made from only one piece of wood, there are fewer joints to worry about leaking.  The natural expansion of wood when exposed to water helped seal the joints, but according to the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) elder Agnes Alfred (in her biography “Paddling to Where I Stand”), clay was also used to seal joints and cracks.  Clay works well because it expands when wet, doesn’t dissolve easily, and is non-toxic.

Vesicular basal  cooking rocks
The Rocks:
Special cooking rocks are used to transfer the heat of the fire to the water inside a bentwood box.  While any old rock might work, vesicular basalt—a type of semi-porous black volcanic rock—was preferred by most tribes because it heats up quickly without cracking.  Most other rocks crack easily when heated and constantly replacing heavy cooking rocks is an irksome task.  Golf ball to tennis ball sized rocks heat up quickly and are easy to move.

To heat the rocks they are placed on a cooking hearth and a hot fire kindled on top of them.  After about 45 minutes, the lava rocks get so hot that they glow faintly and are ready to be moved to the water filled bentwood box.  Rocks play the role of your standard heating element for boiling water.  The temperature and surface area of the rocks (and temperature and volume of the water) determine how quickly the water will come to a boil.  If my rocks are glowing hot, I find that I can boil water in the time that it takes to move 30 cooking rocks.

The Tongs:
Hazelnut fire tongs
Traditionally, wooden tongs would be used for safely moving hot rocks.  Tongs were either made from a forked branch or a straight branch that is mostly split in half lengthwise.  In either case, the long straight sucker growth of Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), or Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) were often used on account of their hard, fire resistant (when green) wood.  I often use metal tongs to move my rocks because they grip the rocks a little better, but it is nice to know how to make fire tongs when in a pinch.

My mentor Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla taught me how to construct and cook with bentwood boxes.  You can read more about him and this cooking technology in my Master’s thesis.
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