Cattails. Yum!

I wonder how many people have said or thought that in the last 50 or 100 years.  Not many, I’d bet, but perhaps I’m wrong.  I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and find that it’s more than I think.  I know there is a semi-secretive but emerging group of wild food specialists out there, but I thought they stayed mostly to mushrooms. 

Speaking of pleasantly surprised, I was after my recent cattail adventure. 

Our pond is overrun with cattails, and up to a few days ago I looked on them with disapproval mingled with despair.  Our pond wants to be a swamp again, and the cattails are the first determined step it is taking to revert to its natural state.  In the past we have used a backhoe to dig them out when they got to be too abundant, and on occasion my husband will don full waders and attack them with hoe and shovel, but it seems to be a futile attempt: they continue to populate at an alarming rate.  Well, yesterday I got my revenge.  I went out to the pond, sharp knife in hand, and cut all the new shoots just emerging from the shallows.  I peeled off the outer green stalk, took them home and ATE THEM!  HAHAHAHA!Image

The surprising thing was that they were actually good.  Really.  Good. 

Cattails can be great fun, especially for kids.  Bashing each other with the cigar-like heads and creating a haze of cattail spores is a treasured summer pastime for those with ponds nearby.  The heads can also be used as impromptu torches.  They smoke wildly and make a terrific mess, but it’s still fun.  Then recently I was killing time reading a book called Foraging New England by Tom Seymour and learned that cattails are edible.  I thought I’d give it a try. 

Eating something entirely new can be a daunting experience.  For a few minutes after I ate them, I thought I might get a stomach ache.  Not because I felt funny, but because they were so entirely different.  If someone had served them to me on china and called them something fancy, I might have relished them right off the bat, but plucking them out of the mud and scraping off the tough outer layer, then slicing them on a salad, made me a bit skeptical of their authenticity as food.  I tried to remember the first time I had had endives, or leeks, as they have a similar flavor, but I couldn’t come up with anything.  Then I remembered trying fiddlehead ferns for the first time.  Earthy, delicate and entirely delicious, fiddleheads are one of those strange spring delights that my children anticipate, harvest, cook and serve to us each year.  Finally, after not getting sick, and realizing they tasted pretty good,  I decided that they might have a place in my repertoire of “wild things I eat.”

First I tried them raw.  As I had been thinking about endive, I started there, and made a salad with celery, Bibb lettuce, endive, and sliced cattails.  For protein I added some chopped grilled salmon and some bacon, and topped it with a crumble of chevre and pine nits.  It was entirely delicious.Image

Then I decided to try them cooked.  Everything (in my opinion)  goes with eggs, so I decided on an onion and cattail scramble, served with salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce.  (My favorite is homemade, but Cholula is a good store-bought second).  That was a success. The cattails held up well, and didn’t get mushy as I feared.  Next time I’ll try sautéed fennel and cattails with garlic cream sauce as a side.  I even served them to a young friend of my son in a salad and he gobbled them up, not even noticing they were there. Image

 

If you have any nutrition information for cattails, or any tried and true recipes, I would love to hear about them! 

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Grandma Sadie’s Deer

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Last week my Dad sent this email to my boys.

Dear Nate & Simon:

Your Great, Great, Great Granny Sadie Smith (your mom’s dad’s mom’s grandmother) lived on a farm in southern Quebec.  One crisp fall morning, all the men went out hunting and left Sadie at home with the kids and the chores.  Later in the morning, she spied a large buck out by the edge of the garden.  Taking a rifle in hand, she snuck out onto the back porch and dropped the deer where it stood.  She gutted it and managed to drag it into the barn and hoist it up.

When the men returned from hunting, they complained that the deer were scarce and it would be amazing if they got any venison this year, at which Sadie told them not to worry, there would be no concern about that.

The men started to argue with Sadie and tell her that they knew the woods and they knew the hunting and they knew about the scarcity of deer in the area and that she should tend to her chores and her obligations.

She agreed to do that and advised them that her chores did not include butchering the big buck in the barn so:   THEY should get to their chores and finish them before they could eat any supper.

Love you all.

Grampa

This fall I proved to be my great, great, grandmother’s, er…..great, great, granddaughter.  I got a tag for private land deer in Connecticut and filled it with a small buck that I shot early one morning from the back porch.  I shot the deer while I was expertly concealed in a rocking chair behind the climbing hydrangea, ensconced in camouflage, under which I  still had on my jammies.  I had spent the previous four mornings in a tree stand out at the pond, seeing nothing and freezing my butt off.   It was a lovely shot, and felled the deer instantly.  Before school Nathan and I gutted it and dragged it back to the house.  We hung it to cure under the porch.  I was very pleased with myself.  It was the first whitetail I had ever ‘hunted’.

I’ve been a hunter for most of my adult life.  I have hunted elk in Colorado, caribou and moose in Canada,  pheasant, chuckar and partridge, even squirrel and rabbit, and now deer in Connecticut.  The first large animal I killed was a young caribou in Newfoundland.  Afterwards I cried.  I still cry.  And then I pray.

I kill animals to eat them and to feed to my family.  Do I like to kill?  No.  It’s the worse part of hunting.  Do I like to hunt?  Yes.  It’s great fun.  I hear so many people bash hunting and hunters while gobbling a  hamburger that it makes me sad.  Choosing to eat animal flesh and tricking yourself into thinking that you have no part in the death of animals  lying to yourself.  It’s like putting a bag over your head and telling yourself no one can’t see you.  If you eat meat, you participate in the  killing of  animals, just indirectly.  And participating in something  you condemn indirectly, in my mind, makes you a coward.  Worse of all, in most cases it’s  participation in abhorrent practices, like the American beef industry.  How can any person watch the documentary  Meet your Meat (I won’t put the link because it’s too gruesome) Or Frankensteer,   (http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Frankensteer), or even Food Inc. (https://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Food_Inc.) and still choose to purchase beef in the grocery store , while condemning hunting at the same time is beyond me.  It indicates the extreme alienation we have from our food.   Choosing to kill animals, whether domestic or wild, and therefore taking responsibility for yourself, or becoming a vegan, is the only sane response.  In choosing to hunt I can have some control in the death of the animal, and strive to make it as humane, painless  and respectful as possible.  My killing is done with skill, honor and gratitude for the lives I take.    It’s not easy either.  I’ll probably always cry.

But enough about that!  What’s for dinner?

VENISON STEW (makes about 6 servings)

Here is a recipe for venison stew that is an old standby because it is so easy and versatile.   Stew likes to cook long and sit, so make it in the early part of the day.  It’s perfect for those days when you have a busy evening schedule and don’t want to end up stopping for pizza on the way home.  This stew comes out differently every time, depending on what you have and what you add.  Feel free to experiment.  I’ve even used a half cup of bourbon instead of the wine.

INGREDIENTS

3 tbs Olive Oil

1.5 lbs Venison, Chopped into small cubes 1/2 inch

Salt and pepper

1 Large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic or more if you like it, chopped

1/4 cup organic cornmeal

Some old red wine (a cup or two will be enough) The flavor will be different depending on the wine, but it’s all good.

Dash of Worcestershire

Broth (chicken, beef, turkey, vegetable.) enough to cover the meat and vegetables completely and then another 2 cups. Perhaps 5 cups total

Bouquet garni: either fresh or dried.  If dried, I make a spice packet and put it in a empty tea bag.  Just fold it up and staple it again. Use 1/2 tsp. each of rosemary,parsley, basil, oregano, bay leaf.

Vegetables, chopped into small bites. (here’s where you can get creative) Use what you have in the fridge.  This can include  parsnips, turnips, white potatoes, carrots. For green vegetables try green onions, celery, leeks, peas, parsley.   You don’t need a wide variety, but make sure you have about 4 cups of vegetables total.

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy cast iron pot or dutch oven on medium heat.  Salt and pepper the meat generously .  Add half of the cubes of venison and  fry until browned.  Remove from the pan and repeat with the rest of the meat, saving the juices.  Next, turn the hear down to medium low and add the onion, cooking  until translucent.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and soft, but not browned.  Replace the meat and juices  in the pan with the onion and garlic.  Sprinkle the cornmeal over the meat and onions and stir. De-glaze the pan with the wine, and add the Worcestershire sauce .  Then add the vegetables and enough broth to cover the food plus another two cups.  Add the herbs, and turn the heat to high.  When the stew boils, put it onto the smallest burner on the stove and turn the heat down to low.

Now leave the kitchen and do all the busy things you have to do for the next  3 hours.  If you happen to think about the stew, give it a stir.  Make sure there is enough liquid in the pot that the vegetables and meat stay covered.  Later, when you smell something wonderful coming from the kitchen, turn the stew off.  It’s fine to leave it to sit on the stove for the rest of the day.  It must cook for at least  2-3 hours, but can be cooked as long as 5 if you happen to forget about it.  Serve the stew with a green salad, crusty bread, cornbread, or even crackers.

What’s for dinner in April?

It’s all well and good to say you eat locally in August, when the bounty of the harvest is just falling out of the garden, but when the cool winds blow through the months of spring, and nary a sprout is available at your local farmers market, if it is even open, what do you eat then?  Daffodils?  Grass?  Here I’ll give you some examples of what truly is available that fits the bill for Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, and you can feel good about what you put on the table.

Spring is the season for cod fishing, and if you live on the Atlantic shore, or anywhere in the North East, fish caught off the Connecticut Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts are considered local, especially if you catch it yourself!  “What?!” You ask?  Relax.  It’s easier than you think.  Many charter boats go out regularly for cod, and provide you with the bait, tackle and knowledge to fish on your own.  A Google search will help you find one nearest you and the times and dates they fish.  The best part is you might come home with many pounds of cod for the freezer or dehydrator, and with luck you’ll have enough for many suppers to come.  Cod freezes remarkable well, and as it is a firm fish, holds its texture and flavor even through vigorous cooking techniques such as stews and casseroles. Try fresh sauteed cod with saffron risotto, or perhaps baked cod with cream, leeks (you might find leeks overwintered) and new spring green onions.  If you look for cod in the supermarket, ask if it is caught locally, and with rod and reel (line caught).

It’s also turkey season in Connecticut, and many a hunter is anxiously awaiting opening day.  This year my husband has to miss the beginning of the season, and my son, an avid pre-hunter, has asked me to take him out.  Having never turkey hunted before, this is somewhat of a daunting request.  We’ll see how it actually goes.  It would be a miracle if I actually got a spring turkey.  Other good protein sources would be chicken, venison, grass fed local beef and rabbit.  The chickens are starting to lay again with the warmer and longer days, so eggs are always a good choice.  A nice quiche is a perfect light spring meal, especially with sauteed garlic scapes.  Scrambled eggs with local goat cheese, roasted garlic and baby spinach would be delicious.

As for dry goods and staples, this morning I had polenta made from cornmeal purchased from Young Farm in East Granby Ct.  It is called Canada yellow flint cornmeal, and it is stone ground the traditional way.  The corn it comes from is New England open pollinated heirloom variety flint, an “antique” corn that has much higher nutritional value than corn harvested with conventional methods as per agri-business in the Midwest.  Young farm is an exceptional company that produces delicious and nutritious, not to mention sustainable and morally acceptable corn and wheat products, as well as vegetables.  Lean more about Young Farm here.  http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2752#profile.  The polenta, with a spot of honey and some of last year’s frozen blueberries, was a fabulous start to the day. We eat it with salt, pepper and butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan when we want something savory instead of sweet.

“Vegetables?”, you ask. Not many, to be sure, but some.  I have started a variety of lettuce in my bathtub, so I can add some micro-greens to whatever organic lettuce I buy at the market.  I have had basil growing in pots since January and that always adds a bright spring flavor to any dish.   Kale seems to be always available, as it lasts throughout the winter.  Cabbage and sweet potatoes, carrots and onions are also over-winterers in the root cellar.  Garlic scapes are coming out of the ground now and it’s almost time for the luscious asparagus shoots, the star of spring.  I have frozen peas and spinach and tomatoes from last year’s harvest and even some acorn and butternut squash.  A lovely squash, kale or spinach soup with some flat bread makes a lovely spring meal. IMAG0262.jpg

As for fruit, we have our trusty freezer with its dwindling supplies of frozen blueberries, peaches and strawberries.  Not fresh, but still great for smoothies and the occasional pie.  I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetable, and fruits is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far more than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter and spring months.  If you don’t have one, or can’t afford a new one, there are several on-line sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.

Last night we had grilled marinated venison with sauteed onions.  It was simple, and simply delicious.   I used a shoulder roast and just sliced it into half inch steaks, mixed it with salt, pepper, olive oil and good balsamic vinegar, left it in the fridge of a few hours and grilled it over high heat.  Quick and easy.IMAG0260.jpg

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Contrary to popular myth, venison, if well treated and well prepared, is neither gamy nor tough.  While it has an unmistakable rich flavor altogether different than beef, it is a succulent and delicious addition to our menu.  Miss-treated it can be an awful chore to eat, and I am reluctant to eat venison unless I personally know the hunter and the manner in which it was killed and dressed. More about venison in particular and hunting in general later.  Happy spring!

A Note about Honey

Honey is, as they say, the nectar of the Gods.  It is an amazingly complex, not to mention delicious substance that has not only pharmacological properties but preservative ones as well.  When I was a child, my mother kept a jar in the cupboard filled with garlic cloves soaking in honey.  The honey kept the cloves from spoiling, and the garlic subtly flavored the honey.  When we had a cough or sore throat, out came the honey pot and in went a teaspoon of the “medicine”, which was both helpful and delicious.  Some people claim that raw honey will alleviate allergy symptoms.  It has anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-biotic properties, and contains several known anti-oxidants.  It has been used topically for thousands of years in the treatment of wounds and ulcers.  As a preservative, honey can keep foods from spoiling for many years if kept in a dry and cool environment such as a root cellar.

We keep two small hives that provide us, on a good year, with several gallons of delicious honey that we use both in the kitchen and as gifts during the holidays.  Family and friends tell us they wait anxiously for Christmas, hoping for a new jar of the sweet nectar for their pantry.    Keeping bees is not difficult to learn.  With a good book and, if you are lucky, the advice of an experienced apiarist, it is fairly easy to purchase everything you need online, including the bees themselves.  Now is the time to order hives and get started for a good honey crop in the fall.  Once the initial investment is made, they don’t take up much space and only require a minimum of time.

Although I believe honey to be a healthful and natural sweetener, it should be always used in moderation.  It is primarily made of simple sugars, and creates an immediate biochemical release of insulin, as well as the resulting “sugar crash”.  Think of our ancestors before the advent of agriculture.  How often did our wandering predecessors come across a hive filled with wild honey?  Use honey as if it were as valuable and precious as gold.  Furthermore, honey is not suitable for infants, as it can contain yeasts and bacterium not suited to the newborn digestive system.   It’s best to buy honey from a local source, preferably wild.  Look for it at your farmers market.  When shopping for honey in a grocery store, look for raw honey that has not been pasteurized or blended.

Baked sweet Potato Fries

Spring is a time when we long for the fresh foods of the summer, but mostly we get the washed out veggies from the supermarket that still have the stink of diesel fumes from the miles they have been trucked to us.  Often we resort to complicated meals full of starches to hide our longing for the taste of summer.  Enter center stage…the sweet potato!  The sweet potato is one of natures super foods.  Packed with nutrients, it acts on our blood sugar in a different, better way than regular white potatoes, and it’s sweet, nutty, rich flavor can be like candy on the tongue.  But sadly, the sweet potato is often regulated to the sad state of boiled down mush mixed with heaps of butter and topped with (yuck!) marsh mellow that we call a Thanksgiving dish.  Who can give thanks for that?  Not your digestive system, that’s for sure.

The sweet potato is easy to store.  Kept in a cool place, like a basement or garage it can last for a very long time, especially if it has been dipped in bee’s wax.  It can be seasonal any time!  The sweet potato is easy to grow.  Put it in a trench, cover it over, and dig it up 3, 4, or even 5 months later.  I have eaten sweet potatoes that have been left in the ground over winter and then dug up before they sprouted in the spring.  They are seasonal anytime!  They are also cheap, delicious and, did I say? Packed with nutrients.  So what do we do with the lowly sweet potato to make it shine like a star?  The simplest thing possible.  Bake it with salt and olive oil.

First get as many sweet potatoes as you need to feed your crew.  Sometimes they are giant and one will feed 3, so gauge your guests, but remember….they taste better than you might think, AND they are especially good cold!  So make plenty.  Peal them of their outer skin.

Set the oven to 500F.

Next, cut them into either wedges or strips.  The thickness will determine the time it takes to bake them.  I like smaller strips, but too narrow and they will burn up.

I made this pile for three of us, with leftovers.

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Next, put them in a big bowl and drizzle them with good quality olive oil, and a big pinch of salt.  I always use Morton’s sea salt.  It is thicker ground than regular table salt, and is better for you.  I keep it in a small finger bowl and use my fingers to pinch out how much I need.  A big pinch is about a teaspoon.

Spread the potatoes out evenly on a pan lined with tinfoil.  They tend to stick, and I hate cleanup!

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If you have to, use two pans.  Put them in the 500 oven and cook for a while.  You’ll need to check them regularly because the cooking time depends on the oven and the size of the fries.  If you used two pans, make sure you switch their position in the oven every 5 minutes or so.  Mine took about 20 minutes to cook until they were starting to brown and crispy.  When you take them out of the oven, let them cool a few minutes before putting them in the serving dish.  As they tend to stick, using your fingers to pick them off the tin foil is the easiest, so be careful not to burn yourself!  Next, add a sprinkle of salt and serve!  YUM!Image