Wild asparagus is one food you can forage for a delicious addition to your diet.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JILLIAN ALEXANDER
Anyone who doubts that July is a good month for foraging wild food in the midwestern United States obviously doesn't know about the bushels of volunteer asparagus that—more than likely—surround him. Yep. The same luscious vegetable that costs so much in the supermarkets is available every summer, free for the picking, throughout mid-America.
While most folks are hoeing it in their gardens or squandering good dollars to buy it in stores and from roadside stands, the common asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is pushing succulent, free-for-the-gathering, finger-thick stalks up through the grass of almost every roadside.
Isn't it strange how we continue to think of asparagus as a delicacy in somewhat limited supply . . . while truckloads of the tasty plant grow, mature, wither and die in the fields and woods around us? Strange indeed, when you realize that the wasted volunteer crop is both more delicious and more healthful than the sprayed, forced and stored-for-long-periods supermarket variety (if you doubt the superiority of wild asparagus, a taste test should convince you on the spot).
Wild asparagus starts to grow very early in the spring . . . almost always right in the middle of grass or other vegetation where it's very hard to see. Many folks locate the plant's new growth by looking for old, brown, withered but likely-still-standing stalks from the previous year.
An even easier way to prospect new territory is to wait until the current season's asparagus stems have grown taller than the surrounding vegetation. They're already too tough to use by then but I cut them down, mark the spot in my mind and go away for about three weeks. At the end of that time—or sooner—every plant that I've cut off will have been replaced by a tender shoot just ready for the table.
One of the good things about asparagus is that it comes up again faster and better when you cut if off . . . the more you pick, the more you get. This will continue all summer as long as the rainfall is adequate and it only takes about a dozen small patches like the one in the picture to keep a family in fresh and frozen asparagus. There are literally hundreds of these patches in most areas.
Wild asparagus is easily identified and one of the best ways to spot the plant is from the seat of a slowly peddled bicycle. It's a good project for the whole family and, with any luck at all, a two-hour ride through the countryside will probably yield enough of the scrumptious vegetable for a full day's food supply.
We use asparagus several different ways: steamed, souffleed, crumbed, in soup and with hot yogurt.
STEAMED ASPARAGUS: Wash very fresh asparagus stalks and tie them with twine in bundles of about four stalks each. Place them in the top of a steamer and steam 'em for about five minutes or until they're tender. Serve with melted butter or margarine.
ASPARAGUS SOUFFLE: Cook and dice three cups of fresh, tender asparagus spears. Add three tablespoons of melted butter to three tablespoons of flour and one cup of milk. Separate four eggs and beat the yolks until they're thick and lemon-colored. Add the cooked asparagus to the yolks and then add both to the butter and flour sauce. Beat the egg whites until they're very stiff and fold them into the mixture. Pour the whole thing into a greased casserole dish, set it in a pan of hot water and then bake in a 325° oven for about 45 minutes.
CRUMBED ASPARAGUS: Tie stalks into bundles of four each and place them butt-down in just enough boiling water to cover the thick part of the stem. Cook them for about ten minutes, then remove and drain. Beat one egg with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper and put it aside. Spread out one cup of bread crumbs on a sheet of wax paper and roll the spears in them. Next, roll the asparagus bundles in the egg mixture and then roll them in the bread crumbs again. When the stalks are well-coated fry them in butter or margarine slowly until they're browned.
CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP: Wash very well the stalks and tips from about one dozen asparagus plants. Cut off the tips and simmer them in milk (water will do) until they're tender and set them aside. Cut the rest of the spears into small pieces and place them in a saucepan. Add to the stalks six cups of stock made by simmering lean beef in water or by placing a bouillon cube in the water. Further add 1/4 cup of chopped celery and 1/4 cup of chopped onions. Simmer these ingredients for one-half hour and rub them all through a sieve. Then melt three tablespoons of butter and stir in three tablespoons of whole grain wheat flour. Heat the butter sauce very well and then add it along with the tips to the stock. Season and serve hot.
ASPARAGUS WITH HOT YOGURT: Cook four cups of asparagus by the same method used for crumbed asparagus. Remove the bundled stalks from the fire and pour one cup of plain, heated yogurt over them. Season with chopped onions or other seasoning and serve hot.
Asparagus, of course, can and should be frozen for winter use. This is done by first picking and then washing the plants very well. Place the stalks in boiling water for about four minutes and then remove and place them in ice water for three to five minutes. Freeze them in meal-sized containers. As most folks who have a freezer know, if this blanching and cooling is done just right the taste of the asparagus will be almost indistinguishable from freshly picked plants. You'll be able to tell it from the fresh asparagus you buy at the supermarket though . . . yours will be much better.
If you don't have a freezer, then canning is probably the best method of preserving asparagus. Wash the picked spears very well and remove all loose scales and tough parts. Place the vegetable in a wire basket or suspend it in a bag made of a square of cheesecloth and hold it in boiling water for three minutes. Then, pack the tender shoots in sterilized fruit jars, filling around them with boiling water and one teaspoon of salt. Steam the stalks for 40 minutes in a pressure cooker set at ten pounds or for 2-1/4 hours in a boiling water bath.
A slightly less healthful but nevertheless safe method of keeping asparagus is to cure it in salt. This is done by washing the freshly picked stalks very well and then placing them in a stone crock, alternating layers of asparagus—sliced lengthwise - with layers of salt. The top layer should be salt. This mixture is allowed to set for 24 hours by which time it should've made enough brine to cover itself. If it hasn't, top off the remaining asparagus with a brine made of one part salt and eight parts ester.
Several days later-when the bubbles have quit rising from this mixture-tap on the sides of the crock. If no bubbles are dislodged by the disturbance, fermentation has probably ceased. Melt paraffin and float it on top of the liquid to make a seal and store the crock in a cool place until you're ready to eat the contents. Don't use a product like this exclusively, however, since salt is certainly not a healthful product when consumed in large quantities.
Even when you use salted vegetables sparingly you'll want to boil them in two different waters for five minutes each time. If the vegetables give off any objectionable odors during this boiling period, discard them since they could cause food poisoning.
Foraging for Bulrush
The stalks of the giant bulrush (Scirpus validus) can also be harvested in the summer. This tall, round-stemmed plant grows in the shallow water of marshes, lakes and rivers, usually in thick colonies since—unlike the wild asparagus—it doesn't seem to like the shading and competition of other plants.
Giant bulrush stems—which sometimes reach a height of six feet—look almost exactly like huge, tapered onion tops. Even when broken open, the stem—sort of off-white and juicy inside—resembles an onion. This is where the resemblance stops, however, since the taste of the bulrush stem is insipid or just slightly "green" when raw. Cooked though, it has a fine taste . . . especially the tender base of the stem.
It's said that the poor of the English countryside, especially those living near saltwater bays, once used the stem bases of the saltwater bulrush (Scirpus maritimus) as a vegetable whenever they could get it. Legend has it that a tribe of fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed giants who lived among the rocks and crags of the seacoast near Land's End and ate bulrush and clams for their main meals was so fierce that no ship or army would dare enter their lair.
Just how the giants cooked their bulrush is not known but I gather, prepare and cook mine by first feeling my way down the plant's stem until I come to the part where the sides of the stalk will break inward. This is usually where the tender part commences and the younger the plant the more of the stem that'll be edible. Break the stalk off there and cut it off again just above the roots (where the stalk will also start to break inward).
The edible part of a bulrush stem is usually about four to six inches long. It can be cut into pieces and steamed, boiled or sautéed in vegetable oil. There's nothing wrong with eating the stalk raw either if the water in which it grows is clean.
When the flower of the bulrush is mature, usually in June or July, pollen hangs thickly on the blossoms and—as with that of the cattail, which it somewhat resembles in taste—is very edible. I employ the same method of gathering pollen from the bulrush that I use with the cattail . . . after taking a pail with a handle on it and taping its opening half shut with newspaper, I go out into a bulrush thicket on a windless day, bend the stalks of the plant into the bucket and tap the pollen loose. This can be done from a boat or while wading among the plants which almost always grow in water that's six or more inches deep.
When I have a quart or so of pollen I proceed to cook it into something nourishing and good-tasting . . . like flapjacks.
Rush-pollen flapjacks are made by first mixing together half pollen and half finely ground whole grain wheat. When you're on the trail, or short of supplies, you can just add water to this mixture and come up with a pretty-good-tasting cake by cooking both sides quickly on a lightly greased griddle.
For a real flapjack treat, however, add three tablespoons of maple sugar or brown sugar, three teaspoons of baking powder, one teaspoon of salt, two eggs well-beaten, 1-1/2 cups of sweet milk and five tablespoons of melted shortening to the pollen. Beat the ingredients together and drop a spoonful on a smoking-hot griddle. Top it off, once you've got the flapjack on your plate, by pouring maple syrup over the masterpiece.
Down in the sand, underneath the bulrush plant, you'll find weaving, twisting roots something like those of the cattail. Bulrush roots are fairly thick, almost pure starch and I've made flour from them by first scraping away their scaly bark and drying them very well. Later, when they'd reached the dried appearance of a twig, I ground them into flour with a handoperated food grinder. Mixed half and half with wheat flour they made a passable biscuit but nothing to get very enthusiastic about. I'm sure they contain a good many minerals and at least their quota of vitamins, however, so I wouldn't hesitate to use them if I needed the food.
Foraging for Grass, Alfalfa and Algae
While we're on the subject of common plants that can be used for food, let's not forget grass. I guess grass could be considered the backbone of all life . . . grazing animals live on it and provide food for the rest of the animals and man. It quickly covers all uncultivated land, healing whatever scars may be found in the earth and is so common that almost everybody knows what it looks like. In fact there's a common expression when speaking of a distasteful occupation, "I'd rather eat grass than do that." Why not eat grass? It's plumb full of the essential vitamins and minerals, can be dried, easily stored and is completely free for the taking.
Dr. F. Shanbel is generally credited with introducing the virtues of grass to human beings. During the great depression, when he lost his job as a food chemist, he actually fed his family little more than grass. Dr. Shanbel space-plotted—at two-week intervals—a two-acre patch at the edge of the little town in which he lived . . . so there would always be a supply of grass at just the right stage for eating. He cut it each morning and quick-dried it with the hot air of his furnace at home. When the grass was dried thoroughly he put it through a food grinder and mixed it wrath the milk and other food that his family ate.
Using this grass as a base, Shanbel was able to feed his family of eight for about a dollar a day . . . and today his children are healthier than most of their companions born during that era. Well the children might be, too, since it has been determined that twelve pounds of powdered grass contains more essential vitamins and minerals than 340 pounds of fruits and vegetables . . . more than the average person eats in a year.
Alfalfa, of course, is the king of grasses, taste-wise arid nutritionwise. I doubt that there's a single food a person could eat that would do more for the body. We covered the preparation of alfalfa and clover to some extent in an earlier issue of MOTHER so the following methods of preparing grass will pertain additionally to June grass, quack grass, marsh grass and almost all other grasses found.
Select the largest-leaved, thickest-growing, darkest-green grass in your area and mow it off as close to the ground as possible. Water the grass well and continue to do this every day until it has grown back to a height of about six inches, then mow the grass again and spread it out on a sheet to dry in the sun. If you use artificial heat don't let the grass get hot enough to destroy the vitamins. When the grass is dry enough to powder—this can be ascertained by experimenting—put about a quart through your grinder.
Now to make some biscuits that'll be as natural as a stone knife and as healthful as wheat germ: Mix 2/3 cup of stone ground cornmeal with 2/3 cup of whole grain wheat flour anti 2/3 cup of dried, ground grass. (Now remember, this grass should be dried and ground fine enough so that it's a powder. If this is done correctly the pure flour will have little taste other than a slightly grassy flavor.)
Mix the meal, flour and powder together very well and add one tablespoon of salt, four teaspoons of baking powder, three tablespoons of vegetable oil, three tablespoons of honey and 3/4 cup of fresh fruit juice. Stir the ingredients together and beat for a minute or two . . . then drop by the tablespoonful into a buttered pan, flatten the dough down and bake at 475° for fifteen minutes. Remove and enjoy hot biscuits. If this mixture tends to be a little too dry or too wet vary the whole grain wheat flour until you find just the right consistency.
If you've spent any time near the water, especially slow-moving or polluted water you've observed the green "scum" that floats on the surface. This green scum is algae, a vast, many-faceted family which inhabits almost all the fresh and salt water of the world. In spite of its unpleasing appearance algae is a very healthful and pleasing food. It's been estimated that one pound of dried algae contains more protein than two pork chops, fat equal to that in a quarter-pound of butter and carbohydrates equivalent to a heaping teaspoon of white sugar.
Nothing, but nothing, reproduces as fast as algae. I've seen a patch only as large as a boy's coat in the morning grow in a single day to cover a house-sized area by early evening. One scientist has calculated the possible growth rate of common algae and deduced that if all the people in the world were packed into the State of Kansas . . . there would still be enough space space left in the state, if it were flooded, to raise enough alga, to feed everyone there.
I gather the algae growing around the edge of one of my ponds with a fine-mesh net and then take a boat out to get the rest. Sometimes we harvest half a canoe-load from the one fishpond . . . but, when this gigantic load of algae is dried on the clean grass of the shore it weighs only a few pounds. We then grind it into a good, green-food additive.
I'm not especially fond of algae but I do use it after it's dried and ground in the food grinder. . . sometimes by sautéing it lightly in vegetable oil for a few minutes. I've also mixed algae into soup as a thickener and have eaten it dried and boiled alone. I'm sure that large amounts could be raised indoors in a sunny window during winter for a green-food source. No doubt much more algae than soil-grown plants could be produced in any given area.
As a matter of fact, it's said that if all the people and animals of the world were suddenly increased a hundred times, one-millionth of one percent of the edible algae in the world would feed the whole incredible population for one day . . . and 12 hours later, the algae would have increased enough to more than make up for what was used the first day!
People starve because of ignorance rather than because of any lack of food. The good Lord in his infinite wisdom has provided for us all if we only learn how to use it.