Thursday, October 4, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 3: Yucca


What the heck is a yucca??  Well they are plants whose entire genus is native to the New World, two of which have been used as food and other products by native groups for hundreds and hundreds of years!  Though their native ranges are always arid areas, whether they be from the desert southwest, arid parts of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central or South America; however, they have become popular cultivated shrubs elsewhere and will grow just about anywhere and even tolerates pots.  I have some that have been growing up pots for several years that were acquired from a neighbor who pulled them up and discarded them from her yard here in south Georgia; though mine have not flowered.  I suspect that they are Yucca gloriosa of some, all of which are native to coastal sand dunes from the Carolinas to Florida.  I have collected wild Yucca flower for food in northern Indiana.  There is even one variety that is native to arid regions of Alberta, Canada.  This is not to be confused with Yuca (Manioc), which is an Island Carib (Arawak) word for cassava.  I have previously written about this last October and that post can be found here.

Cultivated Yucca in bloom

Just for Halloween season, here's a ghost story attached to them.  They are commonly called "Ghosts In The Graveyard," because they need to grow in old and rural graveyards in the Southwest and Midwest.  When they are in bloom, because they all tend to have white flowers to appear on a "blooming stem" that shoots up from the main, so they look like apparitions floating above graves.  

The Banana Yucca, which fruits, has  colored blooms that droop

I am only really concerned with just two varieties Yucca baccata and Yucca elata, but by all means please visit the Wikipedia page on the entire genus!  These plants are so interesting and diverse, that it is hard to see how some could possibly be related to the genus.  I find Joshua Trees utterly fascinating.  Just a few practical uses for some of the other species in the genus used for diverse purposes include soap, baskets, rope, clothing, shoes, and hangers for smoking meats in primitive smokehouses. The roots of Yucca filamentosa have been used to stun fish. Some parts of some species have been used in traditional medicines.  One variety Yucca gigantea  is even used to make American manufactured didgeridoos!  This same species is also used for deodorizers, and has been used on stinky pets, in other words, it gets rid of "wet dog."  The Yucca bloom is the state flower of New Mexico.  It is also the nation flower of Ecuador.

Although a few varieties were used for food in various areas, only the two mentioned above had/have any wide spread food usage.  Yucca faxoniana was an important food source for the Apache, who had multiple preparations for it, including eating parts of the plant raw.  The Cahuilla, ever a desert people still hold the Yucca brevifloia (Joshua tree) as a sacred tree which they call in their language "Hunuvat chiy'a" or "Humwichawa," which was highly valued as a medicine plant and a nutritional sources for flower buds and seeds in the arid region of their ancestry.  Besides the "Banana Yucca," Yucca schidigera is the only other variety whose fruit is eaten, the fleshy flower too are eaten.  The other two varieties have multiple food preparations to their names, and are abundant enough to be included in some main stream Native American cookbooks not specifically devoted to wild edibles.

The Mojave Yucca.  The Mojave are also a people.  This is Yucca schidigera.

Although these plants can be cultivated for food, and some enterprising vegetarians do, they are mostly a wild gathered food.  The Yucca palmilla  is popularly known as "palmilla" or "soap tree."  The Yucca baccatta (and a genus that used to be known as Yucca arizonica) are the Banana Yucca, also called Blue Yucca, Datil (not to be confused with the chile pepper) and Spanish Bayonnet (though at least two other species are called by this name as well).  Popular ways of preparing various parts of the plant include boiling the fleshy flowers and the seasoning them simply.  The flowering stew was collected off of the Palmilla, peeled and baked in the ground (agave crowns were also prepared this way), most of this was then dried in the sun.  As needed through the season, bits of the dried baked stalk were soaked in water to make a beverage, it must be strained first.  The fruits of the Palmilla were not reported eaten by some sources, but most of these were in the southwest US; they are reported, apparently eaten in northern Mexico.  The seeds from the fruit pods were eaten by some groups here in the US for sure.  The fruit of the Banana Yucca, on the other hand, were the most prized part of that plant, since it's flower are relatively small and to eat the stem would mean that it would be unable to set fruit.  The fruits have a very wide range of uses and were and are eaten raw, boiled, baked, dried and in the dry state could be ground into meal. The other part of this plant that was exploited with the central leaves, which also had a multiple ways of preparation.  The flavor of these fruits is reported to be a bit like melons when eaten raw.  A good deal of the above information and some of the tribal information below comes from a very unique Native American cookbook which doubles as a wild edible guide, a botanical and historical source as well:  American Indian Food and Lore (later reprinted as American Indian Cooking:  Recipes From The Southwest) by Carolyn Niethammer.

Banana Yucca Fruit

Specific tribal uses of this plant include multiple uses by the Hopi that continue to this day that include drying, boiling and using in modern day pies with wheat flour crust; but the most cherished was of preparing is to bake them, traditionally this is done in an earth oven.  To read about this with recipes Juanita Tiger Kavena's book Hopi Cookery comes highly recommended!  The Apache were basically one of the only groups to make use of the Banana Yucca fruit in it's green state, which they baked and dried, preserved with adoration for the coming months.  Amongst the Zuni the whole gathering of the ripe fruits was a social affair that resulted in what we would call a fruit leather...the kicker was that the pulp with chewed before it's initial drying in the form of cakes.  Modern cooks also make fruit leather from the fruits, minus the chewing.  The Tohono O'odham (better known to the rest of the world as the Papago) ground the seeds from the fruits of the Palmilla and ground them into a meal.  Tribes in northern Mexico including Mexico O'odhams make soup and skillet dishes of yucca blossoms which are served with tortillas and in modern times the stir fries of such go into more modern dishes like quesadillas and stacked enchiladas.  One of Niethammer's recipes from Mexico entitled "Yucca Hash" is from Mexico and and includes Cholla Buds, another wild gathered edible.  The petals of Yucca are also used in Veracruz.  Last year I posted a recipe that has serious variation and is very traditional to indigenous communities there that includes Yucca blossom (Tezmolli)

This is from a cool website Soiled and Seeded with a modern recipe for  Pickled Yucca Pods

To my knowledge there are not real international recipes for this useful plants, but if there were they would be hard to find owed to the fact that online research consistently brings up recipes for Yuca/Manioc/Cassava spelled wrong.  There are however, plenty of modern ways of using them from both native and non-native kitchens alike.  The above pickle recipe for example, uses peeled immature pods of the Palmilla.  I've seen other recipes that use the same, only sliced and cooked as a vegetable or put into a stir-fry; these same fruits can also be used in sweet pies with addition a quite a lot of sugar--or they can be put in savory pies, for that matter.  I mentioned the Hopi pie made with the Banana Yucca fruit; well in some native communities that are put in pies with so-called "Indian Apples"--which are apples that have been growing in arid condition on reservations for so long that they have taken on a distinctive sour taste.  Some innovative cooks stuff the flower like squash flowers, when they are carefully gathered whole.

Dried Fruit aka Pods Of Soap Tree, ready for gathering and grinding

Amongst native people of the southwest, these plants have also held sacred value, Hopi use the Soap Tree, to make yucca suds that are used in infant naming ceremonies; it's sort of like baptism.  The Tewa tribe who share some Hopi land at Mesa 1 at their village of Hano do the same.  Hopi's also use it in wedding ceremonies, especially at Oraibi, where the bride and groom have hair washed by their respective mother-in-laws.  The hair of the dead too is washed with Yucca suds.  The Tewas at Hano have also formerly used the suds to wash scalps (ouch!). Havasupai and Hualapai (Walapai) used the suds for washing of hair and body at a girl's puberty rites ceremony; while the Hualapai and Yavapai warriors used them when the returned from battle for purification.  Again, this great information comes from Carolyn Niethammer's book mentioned above; which is itself meticulously researched with extremely helpful footnotes!

Happy Halloween Season!

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