Friday, June 22, 2012

Day lily and stinging nettle feast in May

Primitive Pursuits Day in May was planned as an all-day public event with music, food and numerous crafts and activities for all ages. As a trainee instructor I was assigned to helping people make dogbane cords for necklaces and bracelets, accompanying the making of bark baskets, hot-coal burning of wood containers, chipping points for arrows and tools, throwing atlatls, weaving mats out of reeds, meeting animals and raptors – and eating wild foods.

The day before the big event I volunteered to gather day lily bulbs for the wild foods cookery. Jed sent me and Abby down to the floodplain of Fall Creek across the road – big beds of day lilies there. Following a hot and grimy half hour of vicious grinding efforts to dig into the dry soil with our picturesque digging sticks, I trekked back up to grab a shovel and Sefra’s extremely cool trowel. (From comments, I gathered that it is THE trowel to have. I felt so ignorant, of a well-developed American subculture where garden trowels enjoy high status.)

After that we were rolling, and at the end of two hours staggered back uphill with our arms full of day lily plants – the tasty (dirt-covered) bulbs attached to the long green leaves. The beautiful flowers had yet to form. It is ok to harvest day lilies – they are a prolific non-native and their numbers recover quickly; and as with the ramps mentioned earlier, you can re-plant what’s left of the bulbs after cleaning, for re-growth.

Unhappily for a brief time, both of our trusty leaders Jed and Tim looked at us in dismay when we showed up all proud and such. I guess due to the prep required for such a large amount of plants, it simply looked like a problem to them. Jed said, “How will we prepare them?” as though he and Tim had not, a few weeks previously, showed us how to dig them up, clean them in the nearest running water, cut the best solid firm dark bulblets from the rest of the roots, mash them with a big rock and fry up with a bit of flour and salt into tasty day lily bulb fritters. I guess he was doing the ol’ Coyote Way thing, because we burst out with big explanations of how to do all that and he just shook his head and … ran away to work on something more pressing.

So I took the big heap back to my house, soaked them overnight in buckets of water to loosen the dirt, got up early the next day to trim the roots from the leaves, cut off all the usable bulbs, washed and scrubbed some more. This took several hours and yielded about 1.5 pounds of day lily bulbs. That’s a lot, considering, but – also consider the inputs of water and labor. (During the day-long event, our chef Shawn added about another quarter pound of cleaned bulbs from lilies I had not had time to “process.”)

The day lily green leaf stalks can be peeled down to a white inner core (like cattails) with a tender not-quite-scallion flavor, but that is a VERY labor intensive process with low yields, so I gave it up after cleaning and prepping a few handfuls.

Happily, wild foods chef Shawn took one look at the 1.5 lbs of concentrated day lily bulb treasure and knew what to do. Like me, he felt that sauteeing the bulbs in a bit of oil with salt (in a big skillet over a hot-coal wood fire) for a few minutes was all the prep needed. (That’s how I prepared them a few times back in the 1970s when I first got into this stuff.) This gentle treatment allows their surprisingly complex flavor to emerge. To get folks to take a bite, Shawn said they were “like tiny potatoes”  – but the flavor was more interesting than “potato.” Surprise and thoughtfulness were the expressions on samplers’ faces after their first bite.

The other delicious wild food gathered and prepared for the day-long event was nettles, yes the very same, the scary dreaded stinging nettles that cause people to cry and thrash around for ten minutes until the pain subsides.

Wear gloves! Gather them in giant quantities while they are young (when cooked they are greatly reduced, like other greens)! Break off the tender, new-growth top third. When they are dropped into boiled water or sautéed, the prickers instantly vanish, and the resulting cooked green is deeply flavored, tangy and iodiny like seaweed (or, I am told, certain single malt Scotches). They reflect the essential flavor of the deep green that emerges outdoors in late springtime.

Chef Shawn combined these two flavorful treats as small bites served in tiny paper cups. He sprinkled a garnish of chopped day lily leaf cores on top until those ran out.  Assistant cook and fire tender Stephen carried the morsels around through the crowds in a pine bark basket. People would bravely try a nibble – then their expressions would change and they would say “Wow!” “Delicious!” “I can’t believe how good this is!” and many other mildly astonished remarks.  We had enough to feed folks steadily from 10 am to 3 pm.

I subsequently replanted the leftover discarded and less-than-perfect day lily bulbs in my backyard and many are already sending up new shoots. Previously established plants are now flowering. The big red-orange blossoms of day lilies are edible – either just to munch, or Italian cooks batter and fry them and squash blossoms, tempura style. NOT ALL BIG or small LILIES ARE EDIBLE – many contain toxins. Know your plants!

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