by Erik Baard
Flip Victorian and Edwardian snobbishness on its head with a wild and spicy forager’s. answer to the British cucumber sandwich! With its peppery and garlicky kick, call it a Cattail-on-a-Hot-Tin-Roof sandwich.
This recipe isn’t likely to show up on the next International Debutante Ball menu, but it might be perfect for the livelier Billionaires for Bush set.
Some culinary historians believe that upper-class Britons chose the blandly delicate cucumber sandwich specifically because it demonstrated that they could afford to spend money on empty calories. The poor put their shillings down for protein and nutrients. We’ll enjoy our version as a little reward for adventurous field work and creativity in the kitchen.
Last weekend I joined Wildman Steve Brill for a tasting tour of Central Park (photographed above by Heather Sweeney, getting an early start on his cattail feast). Nature offered up a suite of delicious choices. One highlight was cattails, a freshwater plant with a soft stalk core that tastes very much like cucumber, with what a member of Fuji television crew noted was a hint of celery. It can be found by the Central Park Lake and many other sites, including Inwood Hill Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Udalls Park Preserve, Eibs Pond Park, Clay Pit Ponds Preserve, Kissena Park, Prospect Park, and Alley Pond Park.
(Photo of cattails in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)
Having sampled garlic mustard (“The garlic taste is the plant’s defense against insects, unless they are Italian insects, in which case it will go extinct,” Steve joked) and lemony sheep sorrel, it occurred to me that we might have the makings to liberate a traditional cucumber sandwich recipe.
I strongly recommend that you join Steve or another experienced botanist or naturalist on your early foraging outings. Plant misidentification can bring illness or death.
Slice your cattails near the base, but DO NOT uproot them. The roots are edible (and be made into a flour for baking bread), but in fairness to others and local wildlife, grow your own. A cattail corner to a community garden, perhaps fed by roof-collected rainwater, might be a wonderful signature. Check with the Green Guerillas, New York Restoration Project, or Green Thumb to investigate this tantalizing possibility.
Bunches of sheep sorrel (named for the sheep’s head look of their leaves) are easily had in moist meadows and grass hillsides, especially near the kinds of ponds where you’ll find cattails. It’s an invasive and common plant, so feel completely guiltless in munching it down.
(Photo of sheep sorrel in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)
(Photo of garlic mustard in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)
Another key ingredient is wild onion, which has scallion-like tubular shoots.
(Photo of wild onion and fellow-forager Alex in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)
Now blend the yummy invaders in the sheep sorrel spread recipe on Steve’s website (scroll down for recipes).
And given that Steve and I are both vegans, please forgive me if I suggest you try a nondairy butter substitute, for the sake of the environment, your health, and a more humane culture. And if you’re a crust-trimmer, earthworms will appreciate your noblesse oblige in tossing them in compost bin.