Sea Cucumbers, Oysters, Cattails & other Wild Foods
Last weekend, Sherrie & I took off with no particular destination nor itinerary in mind. It was mid-May, Mother’s Day weekend and the weather was great. Multiple fishing and harvesting opportunities were present, with Ling Cod, Halibut, Shrimp, Clams & Oysters (check the red-tide hotline: http://www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/sf/biotoxin.htm ), Cabezon, and other seafoods available for the catching.
Ok, our fishing luck was pretty poor, with a total of one nice rock cod (not allowable and thus released unharmed), and a few sea cumbers. Winds and tides were favorable so we actually covered a lot of water on saturday, sailing when the wind blew, fishing where we felt like it, stopping to forage for some greens, gathering some oysters.
By Saturday evening, we had a nice bunch of nettles, some cattail stalks & tubers, thistle stalks, two sea cucumbers and about 1/2 dozen oysters. We could have kept more sea cumbers but since this was our first trial of this unusual edible and we had plenty of other food, we opted to be conservative.
Sea cumbers are aquatic invertebrates, looking more like large orange warty slugs than anything else. They are basically water vacuums that cruise the bottom sucking up, filtering, and discharging just about anything that is on the bottom of the sea. We caught ours by chance as we were fishing for other things but scuba divers can gather them at will. Sea cumbers are about 99% water, skin and digestive system. The only edible portions are the 5 bands of muscle found on the inside of the creature, and these are very small compared to the size of the organism. I’d guess an ounce or two of usable meat per 5 lb. of cucumber, though that is probably very optimistic.
To harvest the edible portions of a sea cucumber, merely slit it open length wise from “mouth to vent,” and lay it out flat on your cutting board. The 5 muscle strips are very obvious. With a very sharp knife, separate the muscle strips from the rest of the carcass. Discard all but the muscle strips. Use some care, as these muscle strips are quite tender and delicate.
Once you have separated the muscle from the body, you are ready for a delicate and delicious taste treat. Similar to delicate clam strips but more like the breast of geoduck, I’d saute’ the meat hot and fast in olive oil and butter with seasonings of your choice. We used a light sprinkle of Starwest Botanical’s lemon pepper seasoning and a dash of salt.
In all honesty, I’d rate the sea cumber at a 5 of 5 for edibility, but at 1 of 5 or below for practical harvestability. The low harvestability rating is due to amount of time and effort involved in collecting and separating those 5 precious little strips of muscle from the parent organism. There are easier ways to fill your larder and your stomach. Still, for those adventurous few who are willing to try something new, a sea cumber appetizer might be just what you are looking for.
Cooking with nettles, thistles, and cattails
Along with the sea cumber, we made a very nice dinner with our nettles and the cattail stalks. Neither of us were very impressed with the thistles we collected, but that might be due more to our inexperience than to the resource. We found the thistles to be flavorful but tough and stringy. I probably should have spent more time stripping the stalks, as suggested be Doug Benoliel in his book, “Northwest Foraging.” Maybe next time!
The cattail stalks were, however, tender and delicious. Collect only the innermost 3 or 4 leaves, with totally white stalks. Cut off and discard anything above the tender white portion. Raw, they are much like celery and can be eaten plain or added to a salad. Steamed they have a taste and texture very close to a cooked artichoke heart. I could make a meal just of these, and be totally satisfied.
Wether by sail, paddle, kayak, motor boat or water taxi, the San Juan Islands offer an unsurpassed opportunity for foraging and sufficiency. Every bay, cove, reef, beach and trail has something unique and special to offer. If you cannot find edibles in the forest, you can find them in the sea. If you cannot find them in the sea, you can find them on the beaches and sea shore. As a destination vacation or a chosen lifestyle, I cannot envision a more bountiful and beautiful environment.