"It's really weird to think that people actually eat this," Ian Rossman said. Growing up, he saw cattails growing in a ditch by his house all the time, but thought of them as weeds or possibly decoration, never as food. "It's not disgusting. It's just really weird," he said.
While almost all the parts of the cattail plant are edible in certain seasons, Rossman was challenged specifically with the flower spike, the immature corn-dog-shaped seed head for which the plant is named. The young shoots, also known as "Cossack asparagus," can be peeled and eaten raw, steamed, or sauteed. As the plant matures, the developing flower spike is often eaten like corn on the cob; later in the season, the flower produces pollen that can be collected and used as a flour substitute. The roots of the cattail, which are high in starch and can be processed to make flour, may be their most useful edible part. A study in the 1970s showed that one acre of cattails can produce about 32 tons of flour per year, and there are reports that the U.S. was making plans to start feeding soldiers with cattail flour when World War II ended.
Rossman described the flavor of the flower spikes he used, which forager Dave Odd tracked down for him, as "a really funky, like grass-and-butter taste." It's earthy and almost oily, he said. "It's just very odd. I don't think I've ever tasted anything like it."
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
When he first heard about the challenge, Rossman said, he had a ton of ideas for what to do with the cattails. But "once I tasted it for the first time I just threw 'em all out."
The first thing Rossman tried making was crepes; he peeled away the outer leaves of the cattails and crumbled up the young flower heads inside, substituting them for some of the flour in the recipe. "It was probably the best crepe I've ever cooked in my life, lookswise," he said. "And then when I tasted it, I was like, I don't think I want to taste that again."
Rossman started trying everything in the kitchen with the crepe, he said, to figure out what flavors might go with it. Blueberries were the best, making it taste like a blueberry pancake. The crepe still wasn't something he wanted to make again, but he kept going back to the blueberries and started playing off that flavor. Blueberry balances out the richness of the cattail, he said. Tarragon is classic with blueberries and also goes well with the cattail; and mustard goes with everything.
All the components ended up on a pork chop. Rossman brined it with five-spice powder, mustard, and cattails, then coated it with an herb crust of thyme, tarragon, cattails, and salt and pepper. Determined to use his ingredient in as many ways as possible, Rossman also put it into a blueberry mustard and a relish with pickled fennel and blueberries.
After searing the herb-crusted chop, Rossman removed it from the pan and put it in the oven to finish cooking while he made the sauce, adding veal stock, the blueberry mustard, and butter to the pan. "Aside from the cattail, it's kind of a classic French dish with the mustard and the herbs and all," Rossman said. He finished it off with the pickled fennel and blueberries, along with Juneberries, more fresh thyme and tarragon, and red watercress.
Tasting the dish, Rossman said that the cattail "definitely comes out in the sauce—you get this richness, and it's not the pork. It's a very different flavor . . . the dish is really rich and really fresh-tasting at the same time."
Blair Herridge, the sous chef at Browntrout, working with Bailey's Irish Cream. "Blair's pretty good at the charcuterie and barbecuing and I didn't want to give him something too easy," Rossman said. "What a jerk," Herridge said when he learned what his ingredient was.
Pork chop with cattail-blueberry relish
Combine four parts water, two parts cider vinegar, one part salt, one part sugar, and one part cattail, and bring to a boil. Let cool and then soak chops overnight in the mixture.
Pickle blueberries and fennel stalk in sherry vinegar with sugar, salt, and cattail.
Coat pork chop with herb crust, sear, remove from pan, and finish in 450-degree oven. To the same pan, add veal stock, Dijon mustard, blueberries, tarragon, and cattail. Reduce and finish with butter. Serve sauce and relish with pork chop; garnish with fresh thyme, tarragon, and Juneberries.