Archive for November, 2008

Daylilies: Are invasive species so bad?

November 28, 2008

The search for starch continues (after the Jerusalem artichoke disappointment), and this time I was a little more successful.  Daylilies are an import from Asia, but they have naturalized here in the states to the point of showing up in my wildflower field guide.  The Chinese have been eating them throughout history, but they haven’t caught on as a food crop in the States.  I ate the tubers for this entry, but the plants also produce edible shoots and flowers.  I haven’t tried the shoots–there are a lot of delicious shoots sprouting up around the same time–but the boiled/steamed flowerbuds make a passable vegetable.

Finding Daylilies

Daylilies are best found when in bloom, usually in June or July.  The familiar orange trumpet-shaped flower can be found along roads, and seems to be especially common in the drainage ditches along rural roads.  The beginner should take a second to confirm that they aren’t regular lilies, which are not edible.  Daylilies form a mound of strappy leaves, and lilies form a stalk, with leaves growing along the stalk.  Daylilies will grow in fairly shady situations, but this seems to impair their ability to flower.  Like so many wild edibles, the border between forests and roads, rivers, railroads, and fields are a good place to find them.  As a cultivated plant, they are readily available in landscapes everywhere, as the plant is attractive both when it’s flowering and as a foliage plant, and it’s extremely-low maintenence once established.

Harvesting Daylilies

Getting the tubers is easy, as long as the ground isn’t frozen.  I’ve heard that waiting until after a frost sweetens them, and that seems to be the case, as the batch I had was quite sweet.  To dig them up, I found some of last summer’s wilted leaves and followed them to the stem, then stuck the trowel in about 4 inches away, so as not to damage any of the tubers.  Pulling on the leaves while pushing the trowel away from the plant levered it out of the ground easily.  The harvest from each plant is small–10-15 tubers about the size of an in-shell peanut–but the plants grow thickly and it’s easy to pull them up.  I cut a dozen of the biggest tubers off, then stick the rest of the plant back in the ground, but I haven’t tracked whether or not these plants survive.  However, the colonies as a whole can bounce back from a heavy harvest.

Preparing Daylilies

I was advised to cook daylily tubers like new potatoes, so I scrubbed them, twisted off any roots, and boiled them for about 15 minutes, then served them with butter.  Some of them would have benefited from being peeled, but most of them were fine whole.  The tubers with tough skin can be squeezed out once they are boiled.

Eating Daylilies

I always eat a new food as plainly as possible, so that I can evaluate it without elaborate preparation coloring my perception.  I served the boiled daylilies with a little butter.  The first thing I noticed was that rinsing them, as instructed in one of my manuals, is insufficient, and I should have scrubbed them to get all the grit off.  Besides a bit of dirt, they were pretty unremarkable–a bit more fibrous than a potato, maybe more like a boiled carrot in texture, with a nice sweetness and an earthy flavor.

One of the revelations of this wild-food experience is how unremarkable a lot of these foods are–poke sprouts, lambs quarters, sorrel, etc. all taste like “normal” food, and apart from being slightly unfamiliar in appearance, they could “pass”  on any dinner table.  I came in expecting a culture shock, similar to what I experienced the first time I ate sushi or curry or manioc.  Instead, most of these foods feel familiar.  I suppose that’s a good thing, but it makes this experience more like a homecoming than a safari.

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Paw Paws: The Losing Streak Continues

November 15, 2008

I have a relative who’s set up a paw paw nursery, and she passed me a few of the fruits to try out.  The trees are reputed to grow locally (there’s a town not far from here named for the fruit), but I’ve never found them.  Like the mayapple, they are harvested green and kept at room temperature until ripe.  Also like the mayapple, paw paws have a faux-tropical flavor, something like an over-ripe banana.

Preparing Paw Paws

When they were borwn and soft, I sliced the pawpaws the long way and scooped out the flesh.  I fished out the nickel-sized seeds and wound up with a little less than a quarter-cup of pulp per fruit.

Eating Paw Paws

I ate some of the pulp fresh, and ate some after it had chilled in the freezer.  Some of the fruits were a bit over-ripe, which gave them a bitter flavor that I couldn’t handle.  The fruits at the right stage had a pleasant sweet taste raw.

It is my understanding that pawpaw can be used as a substitute for banana when baking.  It’s possible that baking would eliminate the bitter taste.  I didn’t have enough to work with to experiment with baking.

All told, I probably wouldn’t order paw paws if I saw them on the menu.  I planted the seeds in an empty lot near my house, I may have a chance to sample the fruit again in the 15 or so years they should take to fruit.  I’ll be ready to give them another chance by then.

Jerusalem Artichoke: A Forager’s Failure

November 10, 2008

I’ve been looking for a source for Jerusalem Artichokes for some time.  They grow profusely (to the point that they aren’t recommended in small gardens, where they take over), respond to harvesting with exuberant regrowth, and they serve as a starch, which sounded good to a forager growing sick of steamed greens.  This summer, I thought I had hit the jackpot.  In a scrubby little strip of woods near my house, the path through the middle is lined with plants that bear a convincing similarity to the Jerusalem Artichokes in my field guides–yellow, sunflowerish blooms, hairy, spear-shaped leaves, and thick, tall growth.

Exercising a gardener’s patience, I waited months until our first hard frost, which withers the topgrowth and sweetens the roots.  Using a trowel (I thought hauling a shovel in would look a little suspicious), I traced one of the now-brown stalks down to the earth and dug in, expecting to pull up a thin, sweet-potato sized tuber.  At the end of my stalk, there was a woody root about the size of a golf pencil.

I can’t say if I completely botched the ID, or if this just isn’t a very productive variety.  I’ll be looking through a few wildflower books to see if I can find anything else that fits this description.  I was able to salve my disappointment with some home-grown turnips and butternut squash, with grilled pork loin.  I’ll be thawing some of the wild applesauce to mix in with the leftover squash tomorrow.  After spending the afternoon tossing a compost pile (it was well over my head before I rearranged it), cleaning up some perrenial beds and the herb garden, and stealing bagged leaves from my neighbor’s curbs, I’m ready for winter.