By Allison Sayer for Seward City News –
Editors Note: Many of the plant species in this article can be poisonous when ingested if precautions are not taken. Readers should do their own research when deciding whether or not to eat any of the wild plant species mentioned in this article, and be sure they can identify plants correctly. Idiosyncratic reactions are always possible with any food (that means being the one person in a million who is allergic to something). It is always best to make a small portion of wild foods the first time you try them to ensure you do not have an adverse reaction. Seward City News (Seward Data Services LLC) is not responsible for the health issues of persons eating wild plant species mentioned in this article.
Elderberry Flower Fritters
On this mid May day I noticed green leaves on the elderberry bushes growing in the sun. Soon enough, it will be time for one of my favorite personal traditions: an elderberry flower fritter feast.
All parts of the elderberry plants that grow here in Alaska are poisonous raw. However, when they are cooked the toxic protein is denatured and becomes harmless.
Every year, on a sunny evening around Memorial Day, I fill a trash bag with elderberry flower heads. I cut the whole flowering body off at the base with a knife or scissors. The raw flowers have a somewhat unpleasant odor, but when they are cooked the smell becomes sweet.
For the best presentation, I mix up a bowl of batter, dip in whole flower heads, and deep fry them in oil. The cone-shaped elderberry flower fritter that comes out tastes a bit like fried cauliflower, but with more sweetness and a decidedly floral undertone. For a pan style elderberry flower fritter I chop the flower heads into small pieces and mix them with eggs, flour, water, herbs, a touch of baking powder, and a touch of salt. Then I fry them like little pancakes. Once again, since the flowers are poisonous raw it is important to cook them thoroughly.
Anybody’s favorite dipping sauce will do for these, but a hot honey mustard sauce is pretty great.
If I have flowers leftover after frying them to my heart’s content, I toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast them in the oven. They fill the air with an aroma that smells like perfume.
Tangible memories fill my mind as I think about this easy harvest. I think about long evening walks, sunshine, and music. And I think of all the wonderful people I have lived with and lived near who have sat around the table while I stood at the stove and fried one elderberry flower fritter after another.
To me, the elderberry flower fritter feast signifies the end of scraping through the winter, and the beginning of summer’s bounty.
More Spring Treats: Devil’s Club Shoots and Salmonberry Flowers
There are lots of other delicious treats growing in the forest right now. Some of them are easier to identify than others. Two more that are unmistakeable to Alaskans are Devil’s club shoots and salmonberry flowers.
Devil’s club shoots are extremely delicious and have a satisfying “bite” to them. They can be harvested when the green baby leaves are just poking out of the stem like the flame on a candle. Wearing gloves to protect yourself from the stalk, you can grasp the shoot and twist it off. If the shoot itself has spines that hurt, it is too old to eat. When the shoots are very new the spines are extremely soft.
My favorite way to prepare devil’s club shoots is to sauté them. Then I either scramble the sautéd shoots with eggs or add them to burritos or noodles. They are especially good with soy or oyster sauce.
Devil’s club is related to ginseng. If you are allergic to ginseng, you should avoid devil’s club. I don’t know if anyone knows whether the beneficial ginseng compounds found in the root are also found in the leaves.
We are all looking forward to salmonberries, but the flowers are also quite tasty on their own. The hummingbirds love them for their sweet nectar, and they are not alone!
My favorite use for the flowers is to add texture and sweetness to spinach salads. This pairs well with balsamic vinegar on top. I also love using them as cake decorations.
Fiddleheads: Use these popular foods with caution
Fiddleheads are abundant on our shaded trails right now, and many Alaskans use them judiciously at this time of year. However, people should not be cavalier about them.
Bracken fern fiddleheads in particular contain carcinogenic compounds. It is not clear to me whether the levels of these compounds are sufficient to do anyone harm who only eats them occasionally. Still, if you want to be on the safe side you should learn to identify bracken ferns and their fiddleheads, and stay away.
Bracken ferns also contain thiaminase, a compound that destroys thiamin, one of the B vitamins. Lady fern fiddleheads may contain the compound as well. Overconsumption of this compound can result in thiamin deficiency. Thiaminase is destroyed by cooking, which is one of the reasons it is important to cook fiddleheads before eating them.
Some people have gotten food poisoning from eating raw fiddleheads. That is another reason it is important to cook fiddleheads before eating them.
That said, I still love fiddleheads. My personal approach is to harvest and enjoy them when they are fresh, but not to bother preserving them for later in the year. This way, any harmful chemicals I am exposed to will probably be at low enough levels not to do me any harm. I always cook them and I never pop a raw one into my mouth.
Bon appétit and here’s to a ripening summer!