Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Cook Camas

"I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass [sic], and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious."
-James Swan 1857, 19th Century ethnographer and naturalist

The Onion-like bulbs of Common Camas
Camas was a principle root vegetable for the Salish and many other Native Americans everywhere it grows in Western North America.  The bulbs were collected in massive quantities in May or June, pit roasted for up to 24-48 hours, dried, and eaten or traded throughout the rest of the year.  With proper cooking, Camas bulbs were so sweet that they were used to sweeten other foods.

Over the last 5 years I have cooked both Giant Camas (Camassia leichtlinii) and Common Camas (C. quamash) about 8 times.  My first attempts involved either baking or pressure cooking the bulbs for a mere 4-6 hours and the results were all similarly tasteless.  Further experiments yielded much better results and I am sharing my most successful method in the hopes that others can fully realize the potential of this wonderfully sweet and nutritious indigenous root vegetable.

Digging stick (or garden trowel), collection bag, expandable steamer, slow cooker, food dehydrator (optional)

Easily distinguished flowers of Camas (left) and Death Camas (right)
Harvest and Conservation:
Using a digging stick or garden trowel, unearth bulbs that are bigger than the last digit of your thumb and replant all the rest.  I used to harvest Camas with a shovel but found that I was always cutting them in half.  Now I harvest with a wooden digging stick and rarely damage bulbs.  As you dig, weed out the grass, Scotch Broom, and Snowberry from your Camas garden.  Mid-June is an excellent time to harvest for several reasons:  First, the Death Camas* (Toxicoscordion venenosum syn. Zygadenus venenosus) is still flowering so it can easily be avoided.  Second, the ground is still soft and easy to dig up.  Camas ground can get VERY hard when it dries out later in the summer.  Third, the Camas is starting to go to seed so you can sprinkle some seeds over the bare soil that you create by digging for the bulbs and weeding out the grasses.  If the seeds aren't ripe (black) yet, then return when they are to sprinkle seeds over the bare soil.  In addition to replanting small bulbs, it is a good practice to leave a few of the largest flowering Camas plants alone every few feet so that their seeds can mature and scatter into the surrounding soil.  Finally, I have a suspicion that as the Camas goes into dormancy it locks its sugars away into more complex carbohydrates which takes a lot longer to cook. 

Virtually identical bulbs of Camas (left 2) and Death Camas (right)
Be very sure of your identification before eating Camas.  The bulbs of Death Camas are deadly poisonous and look very similar to the edible varieties (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii).  Death Camas has white flowers, tighter flower clusters, and flowers that mature later in the Season (usually June).  If you have any Death Camas in the plot you are harvesting from, I recommend only eating bulbs that are attached to a flowering stalk that you can positively ID as a Camassia species.

Clean the bulbs:
Peel off the dirty outer skin and break off the basal root crown.  Leave the inner layers of skin so that the bulbs will remain intact as they cook.  Rinse the dirt from the bulbs

Steam for 36 hours:
Place an expandable vegetable steamer inside of a slow cooker and fill the slow cooker with water to just below the level of the steamer.  Put the Camas bulbs in the steamer and cover the slow cooker.  Set the slow cooker at a moderate to high temperature and steam the bulbs for 36 hours (yes, you read that right).  Check the water level every 2-4 hours and refill as necessary.  The bulbs will begin to brown and smell like molasses after 12-24 hours.  Cook until they are a very dark brown.
24 hour time-lapse of Camas bulbs steamed at 212 degrees F.
Camas has a similar, but more complex carbohydrate structure than Onions.  Prolonged cooking of Camas breaks long (indigestible) inulins down into simple (sweet) fructans in exactly the same way that caramelizing Onions sweetens them.  If your cooked Camas is not brown, it will not be sweet and will probably give you indigestion.
Dehydrate overnight:
Squish the bulbs flat with the bottom of a water glass and place them in a food dehydrator or oven on very low heat until they are dried.  Then seal them in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer until you are ready to eat them.

A meal that takes 2 days to prepare will challenge the patience of even a Slow Foodist.  For that reason, an entire year’s worth of Camas was traditionally cooked and dried so that it could quickly be rehydrated and eaten.  Most of us won’t harvest the several bushels of Camas bulbs that it would take to make a large pit-cook worthwhile.  My slow cooker method is intended to provide a safe, energy efficient and relatively convenient alternative for smaller quantities of Camas bulbs.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Yampa, more than a taste

Shin happy holding a new root vegetable
 My good friend Shin biked over from Victoria to visit me and Katrina this weekend.  Shin has a fascinating perspective on food because he grew up eating all kinds of wild foods on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Japan, and since Katrina and I were still excited from last weekend’s taste of Yampa (Perideridia gairdneri), we decided to take him on a similar harvest adventure.

Several Yampa plants ready to be cleaned
This time, finding our way safely to the Chuckanut Balds was a little easier.  Rather than scrambling up a cliff-face, we ditched our bikes at the trailhead, and hiked up the short trail to the top.  As before, there were many Yampa plants but we learned that their distribution throughout the bald is patchy.  They sometimes grow alone out of a thick layer of Rock Moss (Racomitrium sp.), and at other times they are in loose groups amongst Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria lanceolata), grasses, and sedges.

Using a garden trowel, we harvested about 25 plants, and I started to notice how difficult it was to predict the size of the corm from the size of the leaves.  I was also surprised to find a few plants that had not one, but two robust corms in addition to an old shriveled corm and a baby corm.  I removed and replanted all the baby corms I saw.  When we got back home, Katrina and I carefully measured the length and width of all the corms as well as the number of leaves per plant and total length of each Yampa plant.  As I suspected, there was only a weak correlation (R2 = 0.4) between plant size and corm size.  There was a stronger correlation (R2 = 0.62) between the number of leaves and the corm length.  Despite large variability in the corm length, they were nearly all 1 cm wide.

Steamed Yampa
As Katrina and I crunched numbers, Shin cleaned, pealed, and steamed the Yampa.  After 10 minutes in the steamer, the corms easily broke apart and he concluded it would be best to cook them with the skins on.  He garnished the Yampa with Chili Pepper-infused Lummi Island sea salt, a Garlic-soy sauce reduction, pickled Grape leaves, fresh Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) bulbs, Cranberry Spinach salad, and a handful of dried Dates.  Our steamed Yampa had all the flavor of a Parsnip with the soft granular texture of a baked Potato.  As far as I can tell, they are well suited to the uninitiated and even unadventurous palate.  With a little luck, they will grow well in my garden so that I can easily make them a regular part of my diet.

Shin's Yampa masterpiece

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Cotton-Camby (Cottonwood Cambium)

As spring is transitioning into summer and the Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) ripen, the warm breeze has started to carry off the fluffy down of Cottonwood trees (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa).  Grassy meadows thickly layered with cottonwood fluff share a likeness to December’s ephemeral snow storms, but in many ways, this “snow” represents winter’s antithesis.  The days are approaching their longest and the trees are nearing their peak of new growth.

On this piece of Cottonwood bark, the newest growth has a translucent quality.
All tree growth is a result of cell division (mitosis) and the cambium cell layer is responsible for enlarging the girth of a tree trunk.  As cambium divides, the cells on the inside eventually harden into wood, and the cells on the outside turn into bark.  Timing is critical for successfully harvesting cambium.  You want to collect the cambium when growth rates are fast enough that there is a thick layer of new tissue that hasn’t yet turned into wood.  These new tissues also serve as the blood vessels of the tree carrying water, sugars, and secondary metabolites like tannins up and down the tree.  Life history events such as the production of new leaves and needles, flowers, pollen, or seeds, put special demands on the tree which require the mobilization of special resources through the cambium.  Theoretically, if you were able to hone in your harvest timing to coincide with moments when the cambium is full of sugars and relatively free of bitter tannins, you could maximize your cambium's culinary potential.  See Megan Dilbone's master's thesis on the ethnobotany of Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) cambium for more details.  Easily observable phenological clues, such as the release of tree pollen (in pines), can be very useful in identifying the proper harvest time for cambium and are part of the corpus of traditional knowledge held by the Native Americans that enjoyed eating cambium.  In the case of Red Alder (Alnus rubra), even the position of the tide was considered by the Salish (best to harvest at high tide).

Cottonwood cambium scraped and ready to eat.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Native Americans utilized an incredible diversity of trees for edible cambium including Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Red Alder, Lodgepole Pine, Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), and Black Cottonwood.  The air alighting with Cottonwood down is a pretty dramatic phenological event, so I set out to taste test some “cotton-camby” (Cottonwood cambium).  I selected a Cottonwood tree that was about 1 foot in diameter and sliced a rectangle into the bark with my pocket knife.  Then I carefully pried the bark away from the tree.  This time of the year, the bark is relatively easy to remove because the sap is flowing strongly.  I then scraped off the soft and juicy new tissue from the inside of the bark and ate it fresh.  The flavor of the cambium was mildly sweet with a hint of cucumber and only a touch of bitterness—by far the best cambium I have tried so far.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

You want-a Yampa: an esoteric edible

Katrina on a sloping Garry Oak Meadow
Yampa is an inconspicuous plant that often grows in Garry Oak Ecosystems, which are really rare in Whatcom County.  The only ones that I know about are in the Chuckanut Mountains along the eastern shore of Bellingham Bay, and on the western slope of Sumas Mountain.  Deep soil Camas meadows and Oak savannas that were formerly maintained by Native Americans have largely filled in with Douglas Fir (Psuedostuga menziesii) as a result of fire suppression, changes in land tenure and Native American diets, and many other factors.  These days, Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) can only be found on shallow soils that are too dry for Douglas Fir.

A small bulb and unopened flower cluster of Hooker's Onion
Yesterday, Katrina and I set out to explore one of these remnant ecosystems called the Chuckanut Bald.  Using an aerial photograph, we plotted our course from a nearby gravel road, but what looked like an easy bushwhack on the photo turned into a VERY steep scramble up a mossy sandstone bluff.  I knew we were on the right track when I started to see the beautiful (and poisonous) flowers of Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus), Sea Blush (Plectritis congesta), Menzies Larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), and other Gary Oak associates.  When the grade lessened somewhat, the soil depth increased enough for trees to grow, and there they were, scraggly Garry Oaks that were wider than they were tall.  We scouted around looking for Camas (Camassia sp.) but couldn’t find any.  However, many other edible roots were in abundance.  Chocolate Lily (Frtillaria lanceolata), Hooker’s Onion (Allium acuminatum), Harvest Brodieae (Brodieae coronaria), and Yampa (Perideridia gairdneri) were all present and have a long history of use by the Salish and other Native Americans.

Yampa was widely used by Native Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest, and continues to be used by some people today.  The Cheyenne, Flathead, Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Okanagan-Colville, Paiute, Gosiute, Skagit, Karok, Miwok, Pomo, Umatilla, Ute, and Yana, all considered the roots a staple that were eaten fresh, baked, boiled, and dried for future use.  The Dakota attributed particularly energetic principals to the roots, and  it was eaten by buffalo runners to sustain their efforts.  The Pomo and Yana ate the leaves as well. (See Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany).

Grass-like leaves of Yampa, can you find them?
Three generations of Yampa corms (left).
Yampa’s long linear leaves are difficult to see among the grass, but once I tuned into their pinnate branching pattern, they started to spring into vision all around me.  Their corms are small at about 1 inch long and ¼ inch wide; growing about 3 inches deep, they aren’t too difficult to dig up.  I carefully unearthed a few specimens of Yampa to experiment with and plant in my garden.  A few of the plants that I examined actually had 3 generations of corms: grandpa Yampa- a wrinkly root that was past its prime, papa Yampa- a large healthy corm, and baby Yampa- a small cormlet that I suspect could quickly regenerate into a new plant if replanted in the aerated soil of the harvest site.

Yampa corms.  The one on the left has been pealed.
Back at home, I prepared my Yampa by simply washing the corms and rubbing the delicate brown skin off to expose the white edible flesh.  I sampled a corm raw and found the flavor and texture to be strikingly similar to parsnips.  The fresh leaves also have a nice flavor similar to parsley.  Though small, I look forward to eating more Yampa in the future.

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