Want to get a spirited debate going in the St. John Valley?
Forget religion and politics. Just find a group of local women and ask their opinion on the best way to find, harvest and prepare local wild greens.
Take dandelion greens or “pissenlit” in local French, for instance. And by that I mean take them — please.
A favorite of my late mother-in-law and my sister-in-law, I find the leaves of the local lawn weed gritty and bitter.
But one journalist’s weed is another chef’s delicacy.
“It’s one of the best foods that can be consumed,” according to Marilyn Ouellette, my sister-in-law. “They are full of iron, good for cleaning out your liver and one of the best foods nature can give you.”
Maybe, but what about that grittiness and bitterness?
Apparently, it’s all in the timing.
“You have to pick them before the flowers blossom,” Ouellette said.
It’s this time of year, now that the snow is mostly gone and the fields and pastures of northern Maine are greening out that dandelion hunters are on the prowl.
Their techniques are as varied as they are time-honored.
“You have to find them before they flower,” Brenda Caron, Ouellette’s younger sister, said. “You take hold of the plant and take a long, good knife to dig around the roots, then pull it up, shake off the dirt and put them in a bag.”
Watching her sister demonstrate her technique with hand gestures, Ouellette was shaking her head.
“No, no, you don’t poke around the root with the knife,” Ouellette said. “You take the knife and do like this,” she said, using hand motions to demonstrate a smooth, sliding cut in imaginary dirt on the table in front of her.
“Yes, you need to poke,” Caron insisted. “And you need a good, strong knife.”
Harvesting aside, the two women agreed upon the wisdom of removing as much of the green’s dirt and grit outside as possible.
Once home, Caron said she likes to boil her dandelion greens in chicken broth with a bit of butter.
“No, lard, good lard,” piped in their older sister Doris Deschaine.
So much for those good health benefits.
Salt pork is Ouellette’s addition of choice.
“Get some salt pork and cut it up into little pieces and sauté it,” she said. “Add some water so it goes ‘ssssssss’ and then boil the greens in that.”
Typical of family recipes, the timing for cooking the greens is a tad vague.
“Until they are soft,” Ouellette said, adding 20 or so minutes should do the trick.
“I used to cook them with lard and potatoes,” Deschaine said.
“Oh, now you’re making us all hungry,” Caron said.
To help cut that bitterness Ouellette said the greens can go through an initial quick boil in water combined with a quarter teaspoon of baking soda.
“Cook them a bit in that, rinse them and then start over with good, fresh water,” she said.
Just don’t forget the butter, salt pork or lard.
The sisters’ friend Jeannine Blanchette is not one for dandelion greens, but is a big fan of that other native treat: fiddleheads.
“I’d never really tasted the dandelion greens because my parents did not like them,” Blanchette said. “But fiddleheads we liked.”
Luckily, the quartet said, St. John Valley ingenuity has made the processing — or “fixing” as it’s termed in the vernacular — of fiddleheads less labor intensive.
“It used to be so much work fixing them,” Blanchette said. “We used to have to clean each and every one.”
The edible variety of fiddleheads are the early blossoms of the ostrich fern (Metteuccia struthiopteris) most often found along riverbanks or other wetlands and known locally as “la fougere.”
The unfurled frond is encased in a paper-like capsule that is wound into the front’s curls.
This used to mean hours uncurling each and every fiddlehead, removing that “paper” and gently shaking off any remnants still attached.
“Now we have wire cages we put the fiddleheads in,” Ouellette said. “We shoot air through the wire and that blows most of the paper off and then we shoot water on them with a hose.”
That really is a much better system than the one I came up with years ago.
I’ll spare the details but suffice it to say not only does a residential dryer not possess sufficient pounds per square inch of blowing air pressure, all that fiddlehead “paper” can easily escape even the stoutest of pillow cases.
I don’t think the lint trap every fully recovered.
Much like the dandelion greens, fiddleheads are steamed or boiled with — you guessed it — butter, lard or salt pork.
They also freeze wonderfully, though I did learn this week why my frozen fiddleheads have always been sub-par.
“You blanch them in boiling water, you knew that,” Ouellette explained. “But then you have to let them completely cool before you bag them or there is too much water in them when they freeze.”
While dandelion patches are numerous and considered pretty much public domain — not so fiddlehead beds.
True fiddlehead aficionados go after the plumpest and largest heads, those found in secret and closely guarded locations along the banks of the St. John River or on its small islands.
“People will chase bears away from their patches,” Caron joked.
All three sisters remember being sent out as children to gather greens, but said fiddleheading was left to the adults, who were known to come back with as much as 300-pounds of the edible fronds.
“That’s probably because they had to go to the rivers and it could have been dangerous for us kids,” Ouellette said.
Such gathering was a way of life in an area and time when the family food dollar had to be stretched as far as possible.
“We had to have them (because) there was not a lot of money,” Ouellette said. “It was really about family survival.”
These days the women still enjoy a heaping serving of pissenlit or fougere with a side of potatoes, some fried trout and that other Valley staple ployes.
“What’s funny now is it’s gourmet food,” Ouellette said. “You go to New York and pay an arm and a leg for a little serving of fiddleheads in some places.”
Pretty haughty stature for a couple of lawn and woods weeds.
To try out some interesting fiddlehead recipes check out the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website http://umaine.edu/publications/4198e/
I found some dandelion green recipes at http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/kitchen-assistant/dandelion-greens-recipes-00400000065638/
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.