As any Juneauite can testify, we live in a land of microclimates. To the forager, an intimate awareness of the way weather moves through our landscape is the difference between a picking season of a few days, and a picking season of a month. Especially when it comes to plants like devil’s club.
For a magically short window, devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), the bane of any bushwhacker, grows delicious buds, packed full of nutrients and flavor. The window consists of when the bud pushes through its reddish inedible sheath and extends one to two inches with a soft velvety texture. As soon as the bud grows large enough for the bud’s spines to begin to harden, they are no longer pick-able.
As you might guess, picking devil’s club buds requires careful maneuvering to avoid spiny stalks. I typically wear a full-grain leather glove on my left hand to grasp the stalk and keep it from whipping around while I pick, and then pinch the bud in my bare right hand so I can feel if the bud is still young enough to pick, then a quick pull down and to the side easily snaps the buds off. If they don’t snap off, they’re too young. The buds are dense and full of flavor and it doesn’t take many buds to equal a cup’s worth.
The recipe that follows is a quick showstopper that highlights the bright, unique herbal quality of devil’s club buds by pairing them with mild halibut, parmesan and walnuts. I honestly can’t think of anything else quite like devil’s club buds. In my experience, they’re a completely unique food. I typically blanch them by submerging them in boiling water for about 2 minutes and then run them under ice water and drain well. They make an amazing pesto, and once pureed, can be incorporated into all sorts of dishes. I’ve eaten them deep friend (delicious), but haven’t experimented with many other preparations.
Devil’s club buds are just now emerging and I’ll be picking them, likely, over the next two weeks depending on the weather we get. The buds picked for this recipe were picked in what I consider one of the warmest places on the Juneau road-system. In some of the colder places, I would guess we’re still at least a week away, but you never know.
That is one of my favorite things about foraging — if you want to incorporate foraging into your life as a regular practice, rather than a one-off, you have to really look at the world around you. You have to explore. You have to take a wander. You have to pay attention. And once you start paying attention, it’s hard to stop. And when you do, you start to see connections everywhere.
For me, when I pick devil’s club is the same time that I pick twisted stalk shoots because they seem to like the same places and grow at the same time. I typically pick fiddleheads around the same time I pick nettles for the same reason. Soon, as you watch the way the light and weather move through the landscape and the way that plants and animals and tides move, you start to get a glimmer of that big web that connects all of us and how we all give and take in this place.
As a forager, hunter and fisherman, you have to consider your impact. When foraging, only take what you know and what you need. Be thoughtful about spreading out your harvest. For instance, with devil’s club buds, I pass up a bud for every one I pick, and if I notice that someone else has picked in this place before me, I go somewhere else.
It’s a simple adage, be thankful for the gifts that the land provides, and do your best to be a good steward.
Devil’s Club Stuffed Halibut Cheeks
Prep: 30 minutes
Six medium-large halibut cheeks, about 1 ½ pounds
½ cups walnuts, toasted
½ cup parmesan, shredded
1 ½ cups fresh devil’s club buds
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, minced
¼ cup mayo
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp butter
¼ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup white wine
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring a small pot of water to boil, boil devil’s club buds for two minutes, then submerge devil’s club buds in ice water, roll in a towel and squeeze out excess water, and mince — set aside. Toast walnuts in a small skillet, once toasted, mince and set aside. Add a little olive oil to the skillet and cook minced shallots over low heat until translucent, about five or six minutes. In a small bowl mix together mayo, lemon zest and two tablespoons of minced devil’s club buds. In a separate bowl mix together walnuts, parmesan, remaining devil’s club buds, olive oil and shallots, season to taste with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in the skillet. Once melted toss the bread crumbs in the butter until fully saturated.
Pat halibut cheeks dry, season with salt and pepper on both sides. Using a small sharp knife with a good point, cut a pocket into each cheek. Stuff as much of the devil’s club, parmesan, and walnut mixture into each cheek as you can fit. Place the cheeks in a baking dish. Put a dollop of the mayo mixture on each check and spread across the exposed surface. Cover with breadcrumbs. Pour the wine into the bottom of the baking dish.
Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until fish is cooked to your satisfaction.
I served this with a salad of roasted radicchio and fresh twisted stalk tossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette and a good crisp pinot grigio.
• Erin Anais Heist is a food blogger in Juneau. Readers can contact her at foodabe.com, or on Instagram or Twitter at @erinanais. “Eating Wild” recipes publish every other week.