Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Cook Camas

"I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass [sic], and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious."
-James Swan 1857, 19th Century ethnographer and naturalist

The Onion-like bulbs of Common Camas
Camas was a principle root vegetable for the Salish and many other Native Americans everywhere it grows in Western North America.  The bulbs were collected in massive quantities in May or June, pit roasted for up to 24-48 hours, dried, and eaten or traded throughout the rest of the year.  With proper cooking, Camas bulbs were so sweet that they were used to sweeten other foods.

Over the last 5 years I have cooked both Giant Camas (Camassia leichtlinii) and Common Camas (C. quamash) about 8 times.  My first attempts involved either baking or pressure cooking the bulbs for a mere 4-6 hours and the results were all similarly tasteless.  Further experiments yielded much better results and I am sharing my most successful method in the hopes that others can fully realize the potential of this wonderfully sweet and nutritious indigenous root vegetable.

Digging stick (or garden trowel), collection bag, expandable steamer, slow cooker, food dehydrator (optional)

Easily distinguished flowers of Camas (left) and Death Camas (right)
Harvest and Conservation:
Using a digging stick or garden trowel, unearth bulbs that are bigger than the last digit of your thumb and replant all the rest.  I used to harvest Camas with a shovel but found that I was always cutting them in half.  Now I harvest with a wooden digging stick and rarely damage bulbs.  As you dig, weed out the grass, Scotch Broom, and Snowberry from your Camas garden.  Mid-June is an excellent time to harvest for several reasons:  First, the Death Camas* (Toxicoscordion venenosum syn. Zygadenus venenosus) is still flowering so it can easily be avoided.  Second, the ground is still soft and easy to dig up.  Camas ground can get VERY hard when it dries out later in the summer.  Third, the Camas is starting to go to seed so you can sprinkle some seeds over the bare soil that you create by digging for the bulbs and weeding out the grasses.  If the seeds aren't ripe (black) yet, then return when they are to sprinkle seeds over the bare soil.  In addition to replanting small bulbs, it is a good practice to leave a few of the largest flowering Camas plants alone every few feet so that their seeds can mature and scatter into the surrounding soil.  Finally, I have a suspicion that as the Camas goes into dormancy it locks its sugars away into more complex carbohydrates which takes a lot longer to cook. 

Virtually identical bulbs of Camas (left 2) and Death Camas (right)
Be very sure of your identification before eating Camas.  The bulbs of Death Camas are deadly poisonous and look very similar to the edible varieties (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii).  Death Camas has white flowers, tighter flower clusters, and flowers that mature later in the Season (usually June).  If you have any Death Camas in the plot you are harvesting from, I recommend only eating bulbs that are attached to a flowering stalk that you can positively ID as a Camassia species.

Clean the bulbs:
Peel off the dirty outer skin and break off the basal root crown.  Leave the inner layers of skin so that the bulbs will remain intact as they cook.  Rinse the dirt from the bulbs

Steam for 36 hours:
Place an expandable vegetable steamer inside of a slow cooker and fill the slow cooker with water to just below the level of the steamer.  Put the Camas bulbs in the steamer and cover the slow cooker.  Set the slow cooker at a moderate to high temperature and steam the bulbs for 36 hours (yes, you read that right).  Check the water level every 2-4 hours and refill as necessary.  The bulbs will begin to brown and smell like molasses after 12-24 hours.  Cook until they are a very dark brown.
24 hour time-lapse of Camas bulbs steamed at 212 degrees F.
Camas has a similar, but more complex carbohydrate structure than Onions.  Prolonged cooking of Camas breaks long (indigestible) inulins down into simple (sweet) fructans in exactly the same way that caramelizing Onions sweetens them.  If your cooked Camas is not brown, it will not be sweet and will probably give you indigestion.
Dehydrate overnight:
Squish the bulbs flat with the bottom of a water glass and place them in a food dehydrator or oven on very low heat until they are dried.  Then seal them in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer until you are ready to eat them.

A meal that takes 2 days to prepare will challenge the patience of even a Slow Foodist.  For that reason, an entire year’s worth of Camas was traditionally cooked and dried so that it could quickly be rehydrated and eaten.  Most of us won’t harvest the several bushels of Camas bulbs that it would take to make a large pit-cook worthwhile.  My slow cooker method is intended to provide a safe, energy efficient and relatively convenient alternative for smaller quantities of Camas bulbs.

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