Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Harvesting Mexican Sunflower Seeds and Sassafras Leaves for Gumbo File
This has been the year for Mexican sunflowers around here, and I've been trying to collect some seeds for next year. The birds love these seeds, too, and that's great, but I was hoping to be able to harvest a few myself. Every time I went out to the garden hoping to find a seed head that still had some seeds in it, all the heads were either too green to harvest or completely stripped of seeds.
Today we've had enormous wind, and all the plants are knocked over. I decided to really search, so I cut a dozen or so dry heads and brought them inside. When I started picking them apart (very gingerly; they are really sharp and prickly) I noticed that what I had thought were empty spaces actually concealed fully ripe seeds, and there were a few of these in every head. Drawing 748 shows a small can of seeds, one of three that I managed to fill today. Drawing 748 shows a seed drawn actual size, about 1/4" long. Drawing 750 is of the ripe seed head showing some not-really-empty empty spaces where the dots are in the middle of circular forms. The three drawings on the right show various stages of excavating the seeds from the prickly seed head.
Later, while walking in the blustery woods, I noticed that the sassafras trees up on the mountain trail were turning yellow. I had meant to gather some leaves this summer to dry and turn into file for making gumbo. (There should be an accent on the final "e" of file, making it pronounced "fee-lay.") So when we got home I raced out to the backyard fence row and sure enough, our sassafras trees were still bright green. So I gathered a few small branches and hung them up to dry. In a few weeks, when they're crunchy I'll strip them from their center veins and put them in a blender to pulverize them. The resulting green powder will be wonderful in gumbo. File is the final touch, sprinkled on top of the bowl just as you carry it to the table. It's a thickener as well as a flavoring. Most of the file sold in stores has thyme added to it. When you make your own you get really strong, pure file.
It's really easy to identify sassafras trees. They have three different kinds of leaves on the same branch: a mitten shape, a single ovate shape, and a three- lobed shape. The tree smells spicy when you pick the leaves. You can make good tea from the bark of the roots, too. People in the mountains claim the tea thins your blood to help with living at higher altitudes. Sassafras is the flavoring in sarsparilla soda.