Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I went down to the crossroads...

Imagine stumbling through a jungle of malicious trees in a strange, foreboding place, trees that move underfoot like snakes and try to wrap thorny arms around you in a sinister embrace. Brush up against one and it leaves a rash of spines—the floral equivalent of miniature porcupine quills. Its broad, prickly leaves hang like prehistoric green parasols, shutting out the light and obscuring your vision. You half expect to see a giant dragonfly buzz by.

Did you land in one of the nine circles of Hell? Nah, just another ill-advised attempt to bushwhack through a patch of devil's club right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus) is a shrub endemic to this region and a few other isolated pockets of North America. In rainforest conditions it can grow to a height of 15 feet but is more commonly three to five feet tall. The spines are no joke. They cause excruciating pain until you take the time to carefully tweezer them out like splinters.

As my friend Judy once said while hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail, that's one club we don't want to join. Yet devil's club has its uses, medicinal and culinary. Native Americans of Alaska and the Northwest have long used the plant for a variety of ailments and as food. The root can be eaten, and in spring, the new buds make an aromatic addition to sauces, sweets, and side dishes.

I first learned about the edibility of devil's club buds last year from the blog Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska and a post about Devil's Club Gnocchi. By then the devil's club patches in my own stomping ground had mostly leafed out, so I vowed to get some the following year. Fast-forward to mid-May of this year when I realized I'd already missed the expansive patches of lowland devil's club in the west slope Cascade foothills. Undeterred, I went higher in elevation while foraging fiddleheads and found a bunch right at snowline.

The window of opportunity is ridiculously narrow. You want to get the buds while between 1-2 inches in length, before the leaf has a chance to uncurl and its spines harden. If you go a-devil's-clubbing, wear appropriate clothes and a thick pair of gloves. I forgot mine—the gloves, that is—and suffered a few puncture wounds in my fingertips that drew blood. A worst case scenario is losing your footing and tumbling into a thicket of the stuff. The other rookie mistake is bending back a stalk to relieve it of its green shoot only to have the thorny branch snap back in your face when the bud comes free.

My next problem was figuring out how to cook them. These buds, barely an inch long, had just emerged from the papery sheath at the tip of the stalk. At this size they weren't suitable as a side dish, but as an aromatic they packed a flavorful punch, a cool, resiny, evergreen sort of flavor. I learned from Ron Zimmerman, owner of the Herbfarm restaurant, that he buds can be used to give woodsy depth to savory meat sauces and sweet dessert sauces alike.

In the end I decided in favor of a chocolate sauce. I've never actually made my own before, so it was something of a comedy of errors, but I think I learned enough during the process to offer a recipe here. Chocolate sauces are fairly forgiving when all is said and done. Like the budding period of a devil's club, the window for serving a homemade chocolate sauce is narrow, but you can always add a little warm milk or cream and stir it back into a reasonable viscosity.

Devil's Club Chocolate Sauce

1 dozen small devil's club buds, chopped
1/2 cup half and half, plus extra just in case
1/4 sugar
4-8 oz bar baker's chocolate*, chopped
1 tbsp butter

* I used a 4 oz Ghirardelli 100% cacao unsweetened baking bar. If using a bar with, say, half the percentage of cacao you'll want to double the amount to 8 oz.

1. Infuse the half and half with devil's club by covering the buds in a bowl with the cream and refrigerating for at least an hour.

2. Strain half and half into saucepan. Add sugar and bring to gentle boil, stirring. Remove from heat.

3. Off heat, mix in chocolate and butter and stir vigorously. Keep a 1/2 cup or so of warm milk or cream on hand for thinning.

4. While warm and viscous, pour over ice cream or fruit.

Here's the thing about devil's club: You want to be careful about heating it. Too much heat and it loses that remarkable aroma. Used properly, the devil's club buds will add an extra dimension of flavor to the chocolate sauce, a cool, piney flavor that deepens the sauce and imparts the mystery of the woods to whatever you're serving.

Did I sell my soul to learn the dark secrets of devil's club cookery? You be the judge. In the process of making this simple chocolate sauce I burned my hand, nearly set the house on fire, and threw our Memorial Day Weekend to the mercy of the traffic gods by delaying our departure time, all in the service of squeezing off a half-decent photograph of the final product. By the end I was sweating profusely, cursing on the front lawn, and making everyone around me extremely uncomfortable. But boy was that sauce devilishly good...

Second photo from top by skagitstan.


Chef said...

and here I thought I was tough for wrangling with stinging nettles. Nope. You go mano a mano with devil's club. Well done.

Martha Silano said...

A delicious sauce, indeed, and worth all the effort, though maybe not a dish to perfect at 5 pm on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend . . . that said, I licked the bowl clean.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

OK that's just damn weird. Cool, but weird. And since Devil's Club does not grow withing 300 miles of here, I guess I am just shit outta luck. Meh.

SkagitStan said...

Not to be nasty, but you really should show the link to pics you took from someone else's Flickr site. For example,