Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our "modern" diets hove become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs . . . those plants which — although not well-known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS examines the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our "forgotten" vegetable foods and remedies . . . and — we hope — helps prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.
There's a grasslike plant that abounds in moist soils from coast to coast — and from Mexico to Alaska — whose sweet, nutty little tubers can provide an instant, nutritious meal (the "potatoes" contain protein, fat, calcium, iron, thiamine, and lots of phosphorus). One of the few edible sedges, Cyperus esculentus is also called yellow nut grass, earth-almond, edible galingale, rush-nut, and — in the southern states, where it's sometimes cultivated — "Florida almond". However, it's from Spain, where the plant is used to produce a delicious beverage named horchata, that we get its best-known label: chufa.
Search for the herb along the banks of streams and rivers, the edges of ponds, lakes, and marshes and right in your own well-watered garden, where you may have cursed it as a prolific weed. A perennial, chufa grows from 12 to 18 inches tall and has light green grasslike leaves springing from ground level to the approximate height of its stout, triangular stalk. The plant's central stem bears numerous yellowish spikelet flowers with saw-toothed edges that form an upsidedown umbrella shape.
When — generally from June to October — the chufa is in seed, you will know there are tasty tubers waiting underneath the soil. But — as is the case with potatoes —the harder the ground is, the smaller and more scattered the rhizomes will be. In loose earth, the quarter to half-inch eatables are usually near the surface but in heavy clay, for example, the thin, easily broken roots may be long and the tubers only the size of pinheads.
Cooking with Chufa
You can prepare chufa in any number of ways. You might, perhaps, simply wash the tubers well and eat them raw, candy them, boil them for approximately an hour before serving them as a vegetable dish or add them to soups and stews.
To serve up a nutty snack, boil the rootlets in salted water for about 30 minutes, drain them until dry, then fry them in hot oil until they're crunchy.
In order to make chufa flour, boil the tubers for 20 minutes, spread them on a cookie sheet, and toast them for about an hour in a 250 degrees Fahrenheit oven. (Roast chufa, by the way, tastes a lot like chestnuts.) Grind the baked earth-almonds to the consistency of fine cornmeal and substitute the powder for half the flour called for in your favorite cake, cookie, or bread recipes.
If you'd like to try some "Chufa Chips" — which are great with dips — sift 1 cup of chufa flour together with 1 cup of wheat flour, 3 teaspoons of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cut in 2 tablespoons of shortening, slowly work in 3/4 cup of cold water, roll the dough out as thin as possible, cut it into two-inch squares and fry them one by one in hot oil, turning the crackers so they puff out on both sides.
You can also duplicate the cold, refreshing Spanish drink "horchata" we mentioned earlier. Soak a half pound of tubers for two days, then drain and mash them (or process them in a blender) with 1 quart of water sweetened to your taste. Finally, strain the milky mixture, cool it and the drink will be ready to serve. (Children like the beverage frozen into ices.) You might also, now and then, want to mix some "chufa-ade" with an equal volume of light rum, and go on to prepare a "Wild Chufa Daiquiri" in the same manner as you'd make the usual citrus and rum drink. You can also add an espresso shot to horchata for a refreshing chai-like pick-me-up.
Another popular European use of the plant is as a coffee substitute. Just wash the tiny tubers and spread them out to dry. Next, roast the "nuts"— in a low oven with the door ajar — until they're a rich brown throughout. Grind them in a blender and brew the product as you would regular coffee for a wholesome, caffeine-free treat.