If you live in or have even visited the Deep South, you know all about the scourge that is kudzu. The Japanese vine was brought to the States as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s, and in the ’30s and ’40s, the government actually encouraged its planting all over the South to prevent erosion. The emerald-green plant also grows incredibly fast, is resistant to many herbicides, and rapidly took over thousands of square miles of land. Suffice it to say that pretty much everybody hates kudzu today.
But I’ve also always heard bits and pieces of information about how you can eat the stuff. Kudzu root is an important ingredient in Asian herbal medicine, and the leaves, especially in the spring when they’re more tender, can be eaten raw or cooked. However, today I’m talking flowers.
The beautiful specimen at left is a kudzu flower. The vine blooms in late summer or early fall, the flowers smell like grape and lavender, and they make a very nice jelly. My friend Shaun Chavis and I had been planning to gather blossoms and make some for a while now.
Vulcan Trail is a great place for kudzu foraging, as ample amounts of the vine grow on both sides of the path—as long as you don’t tumble off the edge of a cliff.
Unfortunately, most of the blossoms were already gone by the time we went gathering on Wednesday, but we were able to get enough to make a half of the recipe below.
Kudzu jelly turns out a nice crystal-clear burgundy color, and its flavor is like a very floral grape jelly—it has notes of lavender and lilac and is very, very sweet. It makes a very nice PB&J or filling for a thumbprint cookie, and I plan to try using it in vinaigrettes or pairing with a gamy meat like lamb.
Making the stuff’s an easy process (except for the dangling-on-a-precipice gathering part), though you may not be able to find any more kudzu flowers until next September. A few lessons we learned from making this batch:
- Blossoms seem to be more plentiful where the kudzu is hanging vertically as opposed to growing across the ground. Check along walls and trees (and cliff faces).
- Rinse your blossoms repeatedly and very, very well. Kudzu (at least Birmingham kudzu) harbors lots of really tiny bugs. A few may make it through the rinsing stage, but if you strain the liquid through cheesecloth before cooking, you’ll catch any stragglers.
- The original recipe said adding the lemon juice would turn the liquid from brownish to light magenta; don’t expect a spectacular color change. It goes from dusky red to slightly-less-dusky red. Cooking is what really brightens up the color.
- After you add the pectin, the jam will boil over very quickly if you stop stirring. Keep a close eye on it, and don’t walk away for even a second.
- Screw the lids on the jars pretty tight; if you don’t they’ll leak when you turn them over.
Makes 6 (8-ounce) jars
Adapted from and courtesy of Barbara Hyman
4 cups kudzu blossoms, rinsed well
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 package Sure-Jell pectin
5 cups sugar
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Place blossoms in a large bowl or other container, and pour water over them. Refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
Wash and sterilize 6 (8-ounce) canning jars with lids and bands.
Strain liquid through two or three layers of cheesecloth and discard blossoms. Stir in lemon juice and pectin. Pour into a medium saucepan and set over high heat. Bring to a full boil, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar and bring back to the boil, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and skim off foam.
Pour liquid into prepared jars, wipe rims, and screw on lids tightly. Invert jars for 5 minutes. Turn upright and let stand 24 hours before using.
NOTE: This jelly is not sterilized using the traditional method, though the boiling liquid should kill any bacteria in it and the jars. I haven’t seen this method before, but Barbara says it hasn’t killed anyone she knows of yet. If you’re worried, ask your local Cooperative Extension office for advice.
All right, my first foraging expedition was a success. Now I need some more ideas. Anybody know of a local forager that’ll help me find some ultra-local berries, mushrooms, or what-have-you?