Sunday, June 29, 2008

wild food

The first time we heard about foraging for cattails was at a dinner party. We were talking about collecting wild leeks over a deliciously roasted pork, and one of the guests who grew up in a Maine talked about all the wild food her mother cooked when she was a child. Dandelion greens, dandelion buds (which apparently taste a bit like brussel sprouts), roadside day lilies, and cattails. We had never heard of or tried cattail. She said that when she was a child, her mother sent her and her siblings out to cut down the stalks and then her mother would boil them and serve them in a little butter, salt and pepper. Our friend remembered the dish as being like corn on the cob.

The foragers Les and Nova ( bring us a bounty of cattail hearts to the restaurant. They’ve been cleaned and cut and they look like white asparagus or cultivated leeks if you squint your eyes. We make a woodland soup. Caleb steams them with some wild leeks and wood nettle in a stock we made from a roasted chicken. Once everything is tender, he added more broth to make the soup, and we serve it over a little bread and garnish with parmigiano. The flavor and aroma is so savory and woodsy it's as if you are standing in a forest.

We find the cattail hearts are a bit like celery in texture, and the interiors are the most tender. They benefit from peeling the stalk away which can be reedy and stringy, though full of celery-like flavor. The wood nettle, which is slightly different from stinging nettle, has been a curative since at least the 19th century and is said to cure all that ails you. In the soup, it is highly aromatic with an exquisite perfume.

During our own dinner after service, the talk is of the children’s book Red Wall in which the animal characters are always eating foraged wild things, especially nettle soup which is described as good for your health, yet really quite disgusting. The characters are always choking down their broth. We marvel at what a little garlic and seasoning can do.


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