Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cattail Flour:

When I first heard one could actually eat cattail it was while browsing through a US Army survival manual I have that stands at roughly a bajillion pages thick. Regardless it goes over what kinds of unconventional plants a human may ingest in a number of different environmental types. I remember reading the section on Cattail and thinking that might be fun to do. Everyone, I give you the process to refine flour using a fine local plant; the Cattail.

First I went out for collection, I’m sure there’s better ways to do it but my novice regard made it seem fairly straight forward, I found a place where Cattails are, pulled off the side of the road and voila I started pulling my first Cattail. On my first mission out I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for so I naturally grabbed the biggest healthiest looking one I could find. It stood well over my head at around eight to nine feet high. It had long frond leaves that hung down, a giant grass. I knew I was supposed to be interested in the tubers (the thick roots of Cattail that network the underground) so when I pulled one up I decided to do it with relative carefulness so as not to rip the tuber from the root ball. I must admit, they do not come out all the time, but I stacked the harvested bundle together and kept going. That time I brought home about 7 individual Cattail plants. As soon as I got home I proceeded toward the burn pile and began stripping the flower down to its stalk. Stripping, though racy, might be the best way to describe the process. Once you’ve got it down to a single stalk begin shaking the dirt clods away from the root ball and the attached tuber. They look like, well, a big thick root and it are undeniably recognized as the main giant root emanating from the plant stalk. Separate the tubers and begin to scrub them free of dirt.

The remainder of the plant is not just thrown aside, in ancient times the leaves were used as an excellent weaving material, thus giving the ability to not only feed, but for other practical uses as well. The flowers, the main brown part that distinguishes it as a Cattail, while young can be boiled and eaten like corn as well. But for the fall season, as I was in, my only usable options were the tubers. I do not know how to weave.

So the first time I tried to do this I somewhat failed, or almost succeeded, depending on how you perceive it. I boiled the tubers, un-skinned, peeled and dried them in a food dehydrator. The next day I took a mortar and pestle to it and followed some rudimentary directions on the internet. They told me to put it all in a bowl of water, so I did. I, however was supposed to peal them before I extracted the starch, therefore it turned out to look like an oatmealy mess.

The second time I did this turned out quite differently as I was properly prepared this time with a potato peeler and a fine strainer for separation. My harvesting techniques had changed as well, that time I had brought a shovel to dig a little to expose tubers under the surface. While doing so it dawned on me that I didn’t need to harvest the fronds at all considering all I needed were the tubers, plus I wouldn’t kill the plant that way; more sustainable. This time I came back with a few handfuls of tubers and a frond or two to perhaps give weaving a whirl later on. The labor inductive part of this task was to peel the tubers down to their white stringy innards. For a few handfuls of tubers it took me nearly forty five minutes to peel every piece, though it was my first time. But that wasn’t the most time consuming part of the process. There was still the matter of extracting the starch from the root, which consisted of a steady resolve, sturdy butter knife and a working surface of some kind. The idea here is to literally scrape the starch right out of the stock, it almost was always a brilliant white compared with the drab brownish that was the tuber itself and it resembled that of ricotta cheese.

Quite a while later, I’m not sure exactly as time merely became an illusion after a bit, I had finished scraping every last ounce of starch from that gooey mess. The tubers proved hard to hold onto while I was endeavoring to scrape their innards out, take caution if you try this method. According to the internet there’s another way to do that by working the roots with your hands in water but my way was talked about as being more fun.

So, I had a bowl full of what looked like mashed potatoes with little string fibers from the tubers themselves. The next step in the process was simple, submerge in water and wait. So I did, I filled the bowl up and went out drinkin’ with the dudes.

The following morning it had all separated and I easily poured off the remaining water to be left with what looked like day old, wet cream of wheat. I took that and poured it carefully onto a sheet of wax paper and proceeded to put it in the food dehydrator.

Then I waited for two days.

When I took the wax paper sheet out it had what resembled a white cow-pie, it was somewhat gross looking but more importantly it was dry. The ‘last’ step in the process was to use the mortar and pestle to grind out the flour.

There you have it! Cattail flour! YAY! What I’ve realized is that this is a very labor intensive process that is not for the faint of heart. There was a great deal of work that went into this for what I got in return but it was informative. I’m glad to know if I had to survive on the elements, I could even cook bread with proper time and prep.

Thanks for reading!

Brian