Thursday, September 20, 2012

Yerba Buena Tea

Yerba Buena
Last week, we served Yerba Buena Tea to attendees at the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, and I was impressed anew by the subtly pleasing qualities of this easy-to-make tea from the California native groundcover called Satureja douglasii. This wonderful little plant from the mint family grows under oak trees, where it is said to be difficult to find plants that survive, especially if you follow the rule to avoid watering out of season under oak trees. This rule is important because some diseases attacking oaks come from the unCalifornian combination of moisture and heat, which is not normally occurring in a Mediterranean climate like ours in California. Actually, I think it's easy to garden or plant under oak trees, but that's another topic.
Yerba buena also can be found thriving at the edge of chaparral and coastal scrub, making a lovely neat chartreuse edging along paths and trails. In the early days of our 30-year-old Larner Seeds Demonstration Garden in Bolinas, I couldn't get yerba buena to do well. Now that "things," and by "things," I mean the many qualities of shade and sun and soil that have developed through the years, have changed, it takes off and seems to do well everywhere we put it, except where outcompeted by native blackberry.

So I have lots of material for tea-making. For a crowd, I use approximately two masses or clumps of stems and leaves that would fit in both my hands to make a 4-quart stockpot full of tea. This is always a matter of taste, but I prefer it rather mild. Rinse it off and remove oak leaves that seem to always be caught in it and pour boiling water over it. Let soak for ten or fifteen minutes. I've also let it soak for a very long time, up to 12 hours, to make a concentrate, such as for bringing to the Expo. Once there, I diluted the one quart of concentrate with two to four gallons of filtered water. I also like to put some sprigs of yerba buena into my drinking water at the beginning of a hike.
It is so refreshing in its mild way, having nothing to do with caffeine, and it seemed to be greatly appreciated by thirsty Expo-goers. One sampler called it "amazingly hydrating." When frequently asked about its medicinal qualities, since it seems we can't be bothered drinking something without a confirmed health benefit, I repeated the simple instructions given us by Milton "Bun" Lucas, Pomo Indian, who is no longer with us, but who left many of us with treasured information. Bun said that he saved it for special occasions so as to retain its efficacy, using it for colds, or, as at the Expo, for times of unusual demands, which could describe a fair of 20,000 people. That was the pre-estimated number, though I, of course, didn't serve yerba buena tea to that many people.

But I almost could have.
Yerba Buena

Monday, September 17, 2012

Camassia quamash
Blue Camas

Camas is one of the most important indigenous root foods, covering many hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the west, from Montana to California, both in the Sierra, on the Modoc plateau, and even occasionally on the coast. Where it still flourishes, it is easily glimpsed in spring, when it turns the fields and prairies a glorious rich blue-purple color.

It likes areas that are seasonally wet, drying out by late spring. It grows in wet meadows, swales, annual floodplains, and along ephemeral creeks, in sun or part-shade, and is found from two to eight inches below the surface.

Like other edible members of the lily family, it was harvested in such a way as to allow for its enhanced and continued flourishing. The large bulbs, from 1” to 2.5” in diameter, were removed to be eaten, while the smaller bulbs clinging to its sides were replanted in the loosened soil to grow into next year’s harvest. Digging sticks used for the purpose were excellent at churning the soil and avoided the danger of destroying the bulbs while digging, which can happen with a shovel or trowel.

A dense bulb with layers like an onion, camas contains inulin, a starch that is difficult to digest. Indigenous peoples were masters at the art of converting this substance to the digestible fructose, through long, slow cooking in an earth oven, as long as 36 hours but at least for two days. At this stage, the bulb starts to caramelize and turn brown, becoming very sweet in the process. Eating it before it turns brown may cause indigestion.

In the absence of earth ovens, try a “slow-cooker.” Remove the thin dark outer skin and place them in a steamer in the cooker, or in the oven at 220 degrees, adding water to reach the bottom of the steamer. Cover and cook for 12 hours, then remove, salt, and fry in olive oil. Or let cook for the recommended 36 hours, adding water as necessary.

For a luxurious dessert that reminds me of the E. Indian dessert called ras malai, I found a way to shorten the cooking time by boiling the bulbs for 30 minutes in water and then cooking them with cream and a small amount of sugar for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Use a pan large enough that it won’t boil over. Add rosewater and sweetener to taste. The bulbs become soft
and almost disappear the longer you cook them, thickening the pudding and adding a delicious taste. None of those of us who ate it experienced indigestion.

Camas is well worth growing at home, where you can become good at identifying its flowers and seed stalk. Note that it occasionally grows with another bulb that is toxic, called “death camas,” Toxicoscordion venenosum, which fortunately has very different white flowers, so only harvest from the wild if the flower or seed stalk is still attached and you are practiced at identification. The seed stalk is quite distinct in appearance, but never take a chance.

A home harvest provides flowers, safe and delicious meals, and a chance to connect with a root-food rich in history and association with this continent’s humankind.