Saturday, April 13, 2013

Native American Cooking: Yucca Part 2

This past cooking class was a special one, because a special friend came with me. I've got two amazing kids in my life, and I brought the older one, a 5th grader. She's not into plants like I am, and sometimes she's not the most adventurous eater - but I thought she'd like the class.

I warned my classmates that my friend's kid was coming, and one of them (what a sweetheart!) responded by bringing s'more ingredients to class. Not exactly a Native American food... but the kid loved it...

The official meal of the day was yucca blossoms. In the previous class we cooked yucca stalk.

If you've got kids, then you might know what it's like in our house. I say "might" because some kids just grow up eating healthy food and follow their parents interests in nature, cooking, gardening, health, and all the rest. The kids in my life are not those kids. They like video games, TV, and junk food, and they are pretty much your average, all-American kids. (They are also bright, funny, extremely well-behaved, and loving, and what's more important than that?)

I'm not into punishing kids by forcing them to do stuff they hate. But my 5th grader loves The Hunger Games, and Katniss was a pro at foraging and cooking wild foods. So I thought we'd give my cooking class a try.

As I've said for years, you can't win out over Happy Meals with limp, overcooked broccoli. You need to compete by letting your kids interact with farm animals, build worm bins, go apple picking, and generally engage them in any way you can. Because, trust me, milking a goat and finding eggs from your own chickens are way cooler than some stupid, plastic toy you get with your hamburger.

When we arrived at class, we found a treat - a brand new fire ring, complete with logs for seats and tons of firewood! One by one, the class assembled, and then we went off in search of yucca. This took quite a while, but not because the yucca was hard to find. We just took the scenic route.

We piled into a classmate's pickup, and headed up a mountain on the reservation. We passed TONS of wildflowers:

Owl's Clover (related to Paintbrushes, not Legumes)

Indian Paintbrushes

Tidy Tips, a type of daisy

We stopped and got out of the truck to do a quick search for Jepsonia, a.k.a. Indian Potatoes, because one classmate had missed that lesson. I took off up the mountain on foot to find a patch of clematis vines I knew of since I'd just learned that they are good medicine for migraines.

I left my kid in my friends' hands, and when I came back, the same amazing classmate who brought the s'mores was gently showing her all of the different plants around, and filling her in on exciting details about each of them. I could have hugged him.

We piled back in the truck, and continued up to the very top of the mountain. Again, we hopped out, but this time it really was to harvest some yucca.

We cut down three stalks of Our Lord's Candle yucca, the more common yucca species in the area (although I did spot some Mojave Yucca on the reservation as well), piled back in the truck, and headed back down the hill.

Our Lord's Candle Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei

The trip down the mountain was not a quick one. One classmate let his curiosity about the plants we pass completely run away with him, so we stopped frequently to check out anything interesting he spotted from the road. His best find was this flower, Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla (Plantain family).

Chinese Houses

At last we got back to our gorgeous new fire ring and our classroom, and it was time to get to work. We removed the flowers from the yucca stalk. The stalks went directly into the fire to cook - and the flowers went into a pot of water.

To prepare yucca flowers, you need to boil them in water, and then pour off the water. Do this three times. This removes the bitterness from them. Below, you can see the flowers in the pot of water, and the water after it boiled, but before I poured it out. When they boil, the flowers color the water a sickly yellow/brown/greenish tint. I assume that's the bitter stuff we don't want to eat.

After boiling them three times, the flowers are pretty well cooked and they really smell like vegetables. I've often read that they taste good with wild onions, and I think they're likely eaten together because both are ripe at the same time. Unfortunately, we did not have wild onions on hand, so we used one from the store.

Our instructor sauteed the yucca flowers with onion, extra virgin olive oil, and a bit of salt.

Then, she cracked a few eggs into the pot, and continued stirring and cooking. The eggs tasted great, but of course chickens eggs were not on the Kumeyaay menu before the Europeans showed up.

Once the mixture was all cooked up, we each heated up a tortilla and made ourselves burritos. Delicious! Even my picky eater friend, Ms. 5th Grader, enjoyed it.

Back around the campfire, while the yucca stalks were cooking, my young friend gained even more insight from my wonderful classmates. They taught her how to build a campfire, and they let her light the match. She got the fire going on the first try. They pointed out an owl hooting to her, and taught her how to distinguish between the sound of a Great Horned Owl and a Barn Owl. She heard both. Then everyone told funny stories about mishaps they'd had while camping. It was really a bummer to make my young friend go home because of those two horrible words - "Bed Time."

On the way home, I asked her if she'd ever had a class that fun before at her school. "Well, not THIS fun," she said, "But recess is pretty good." I'm glad to know that discovering nature and indigenous culture rate better than recess for her!! Take that, Ronald McDonald!

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