Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Native American Cooking: Yucca Part 1

Last week was a highly anticipated lesson in my Kumeyaay Traditional Foods class. After much fanfare, we prepared yucca! I have to say, it didn't taste as good as I'd hoped. But some people said they loved it, and it could certainly be a matter of harvesting the plant at the right time. This is the first of two diaries on yucca. The second will cover the flowers, which are also edible.

There are two major species of yucca in San Diego County: Hesperoyucca whipplei and Yucca schidigera. As you can see, they are in different genera, and only one is a true yucca. That one, the latter, is Mojave Yucca. You can recognize it because the flowers grow directly above the leaves, whereas the other species - Our Lord's Candle Yucca - has a long stalk in between the leaves and the flowers. Mojave Yucca flowers more than once in its lifetime. Our Lord's Candle lives for several years, sends up a stalk, flowers, and dies.

Mojave Yucca

Our Lord's Candle is a fairly common plant, and when you harvest a plant for food after it's sent up its stalk, it's on the brink of dying anyway. On the other hand, you are preventing it from going to seed and reproducing by eating it. For that reason, it's probably a good idea not to harvest every single plant you find - let some reproduce.

When the yucca sends up its stalk, it also sends up a lot of sugars. Once it blooms, it's less sweet. It also gets very fibrous. You really have to catch the plants just at the right time if you want to eat them.

Here are some pics of Our Lord's Candle, Hesperoyucca whipplei.

A yucca plant just sending up its stalk - no flowers yet. This is good to harvest.

A yucca plant in bloom. It's too late to harvest this one.

The stalk.

A plant minus its stalk. The leaves are SHARP so you have to be careful not to get cut when you take the stalk. Gloves might be a good idea.

A close up of yucca blossoms

An even closer-up shot of a yucca flower - 6 tepals (a combination of sepals and petals), 6 stamens, and 3 carpels.

We had no class for a few weeks, and during that time, the yuccas on the Sycuan Reservation decided that it was time. One of the students in the class, who also happens to be in charge of the grounds of the reservation, uprooted an entire yucca plant when it began to send up its stalk. Literally. He dug up The Whole Thing. Then he placed it outside the classroom.

A few weeks later, we showed up for class, and there's this enormous yucca plant, completely in bloom. It was not blooming when it was harvested. After it was uprooted, the stalk grew several feet taller and then it bloomed. At that point, the stalk was pretty fibrous and dry. Whoops.

Nonetheless, our instructor put us to work removing the sharp, pointed leaves covering the outside of the stalk. Those peel off easily. Then she had us remove the flowers and set them aside so we could cook them and eat them. Last, we cut the stalk off the base of the plant. But even that was not wasted, because the leaves will be used to make rope and cordage.

Our class, deflowering the yucca plant.

I've read about pit roasting yucca, but our instructor cooks it by placing the stalk directly in the fire. Literally. The whole thing just goes into the fire. Before long, it's hard to tell the yucca apart from the firewood.

Toss the yucca stalk right into the fire.

When the yucca is completely charred all over and a bit ashy and soft, it's done. Safely remove it from the fire, then cut the peel off with a knife, and eat it. It's sweet and somewhat tasty, although that depends in part on the specific plant you harvested and how far along it was in flowering.

Remove it when it looks totally charred.

Cut the charred peel off with a knife, and eat it.

I've also tried cooking yucca by peeling it, dicing it into large chunks, tossing it in sea salt and olive oil, and roasting it. That's more practical if you aren't cooking on a campfire, and one friend I cooked it for using both methods told me she preferred it.

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