Monday, March 2, 2009

Mountain Meals---Spring Breaks

We had two big gardens behind the house where I grew up, but the gardens weren't the only source of our meals. The mountain provided lots of things to eat, and Gramma knew how to find many of them.

One thing she gathered in the spring were "Breaks." Breaks were the the brand new, unfurled fronds of the Braken Fern.

They seem to pop up wherever they choose, in meadows and odd places throughout the woods. When they're only about six to ten inches tall, their thin stems make them almost imperceptible through the shade of the trees, but once you find one, you've probably found a whole colony! And once you find that colony, remember it's location as you can probably return each year to collect a batch or two. (see picture below)

They can easily be distinguished from other fern fronds by looking for the rusty-brown "fur" that coats the back of their frond "spines" when they are only a few inches tall. The main stem is usually covered by a thin layer of white fuzz that I would call more of a thin "wool." Unlike other ferns, Break stems are sturdy and bulky, sometimes a quarter inch in diameter at the base, but usually when the fronds are no more than a few inches tall. The stems narrow out as the fern gets taller.
(There are other ferns that are edible, but their stems have no fur and the fronds are full of brown papery flakes. These are called Ostrich Ferns. They're just a good to eat, but for some reason we never gathered those.)
When it came time to pick Breaks, Gramma would throw on an old, full-cover apron, gather the dogs, and head into the woods. As the dogs ripped through the sweet fern after imaginary animals, Gram would stroll under the oaks and maples, occasionally settling on the edge of an old stone row to watch them run. The task was to gather Breaks, but I think that was secondary to the walk.
When we found a good stand of short Breaks, Gram began gathering. To gather Breaks, you need to run your hand up the stem to the point where the frond snaps in half. If it bends, continue up the stem to the point where it breaks cleanly. Get it...breaks? Yup, I think that's where the name came from. Don't cut the frond with a knife. It's tempting to harvest the whole veggie, but if you try to cook that lower part, you'll find it woody and unpalatable.
Ants enjoy Breaks immensely! As she gathered a handful at a time, Gram would give the stems a bit of a shake to get the ants off, but many still clung. Into the apron they'd go, right along with the ferns. Once her apron was full, she'd gather the hem around the tender stems and we'd head for the house. There, she dropped the Breaks into a very large pot of water in the backyard with a "good dose of table salt." The ants hated the salt, and within an hour or so they were all gone.
When the ants were gone, the Breaks went into the house and were washed again in the sink. Then they all went into the pot again with a bit of fresh salt, and were boiled for dinner. Gram simply sered them with a little butter and salt and pepper, as one would do asparagus.
The above is my personal experience, however, I did a little research and discovered that many cooks use these raw in salads, and people have been known to pick and eat them along trail sides. Personally, I suppose there's something to be said for eating plants as close to their natural state as possible, but considering how much ants love these little treasures, I wouldn't want to eat them raw.
Don't give up on breaks just because you live in the city. Even though I've never searched them out, I hear you can find these in Asian markets. If that fails, take a drive to the country to locate them. I've even seen these along the roadside. If you find them, don't pass them up. You might never return to asparagus again.