Crossposted at Politicook.org. Poke, also known as Pokeweed, Poke Salad (or Sallet), Pigeonberry, Inkberry, Garget, American Poke, Indian Poke, as well as several others is know by the Latin name of Phytolacca americana. It is very widespread in the United States, except for the mountain states, Alaska, and Hawaii. Almost everyone outside of those areas has seen poke, but may not realize it.
A very striking and handsome plant, poke is almost always recognized after it is too late to pick and eat, with a single exception that I will mention later. By the time most folks see it, it is several feet high and has purple stems, and is in flower or has already started to set deep purple racemes of fruit. Some people plant it as an ornamental.
Poke provides several different treats, many of which taste somewhat similar, and some that are unique. The difference has to do with the age of the plant. For me, the very tiny, young shoots are the best. But later, leaves can be plucked and used as one would spinach or turnip greens, but I think they taste better. Finally, the stems can be used for a fried okra-like dish.
I have heard that people take the berries and strain out the seeds and then make jelly, but I have no experience with this and do not recommend it due to the fact that the seeds and root of the plant are known to contain high concentrations of several toxic materials. The young, green parts of the plant are low in these materials, and the little that there is can be washed out by proper cooking.
To find poke, look for last year’s stalks. They get broken down over the winter, but are very distinctive. The are a lighter shade of gray than most other "weed" stalks, and have a geometry that is different than most, being bushy looking rather than straight. To find poke, drive by areas that have been cleared of brush and trees in the past few years. Birds seed brushpiles when they roost, and they are amongst the richest places to search. If you wish, return in the fall and harvest seed to plant around your place.
Going by the seasonal progression, the esculent phases of poke begin with the fat, young shoots the first appear. Writing this draft on the evening of 26 April 2008, the first shoots are stabbing the air above the ground, becoming free to grow. For me, this is finest product of the plant. To harvest and cook, just do the following.
Break them off at ground level. No need to cut, just snap them off. The leaves will not be fully opened at this point, and the entire assembly sort of resembles an asparagus shoot, but with a bit of looser leaf. A hint about harvesting is to remove any foreign material as you pick, so you have less work to do once in the kitchen.
Here are some pictures of what I picked on 10 May 2008:
This is a small "mess" in a five quart ice cream bucket.
This is the same "mess" out of the container.
Take the shoots and place in the sink, and cover with cold water. Then sort of swish them around, and, when you are satisfied that any insect is gone, place in a large bowl. Repeat until all of your poke is clean. In the meantime, heat a large cooking vessel nearly filled with water to boiling. After the water is boiling, place your cleaned shoots in it and allow to return to boiling. Parboil the shoots at a rolling boil for about five minutes. Some folks recommend adding a pinch or two of baking soda to the water, but I can not see any difference in the product either way.
These are what I consider to the the finest size. The boards are 3.5 inches wide.
You will notice a very peculiar odor during this stage, and many folks find it to be offensive. Mrs. Translator, an avid wild food gatherer, usually leaves the kitchen to me for this stage. This odor does not affect the final product, or no one would eat it. I assure you that it will go away.
Drain off this water and discard. It will be "muddy" looking due to the tannins and toxins that are extracted. Rinse the now parboiled shoots with hot water, and discard that water as well.
This is just after parboiling.
Depending on what you plan to do with the parboiled poke, you will either prepare it for eating immediately or prepare it for canning or freezing. I will talk about canning and freezing a bit later. To serve now, just cover the shoots with fresh water and add salt, if you like, to taste. Unlike spinach, poke benefits from longer cooking, so do not worry about overcooking it. Just be gentle with the shoots, so as not to tear them up during the final cooking. I like to add the most Southern of all spices, bacon grease, to my "mess" of poke shoots, but that is just me. In any event, gently simmer them for another 20 minutes or so, then they are ready to eat. Poke is best served with cornbread, or, even better, crusty corn pone as a hearty side dish for a complete meal.
This is after it is fully cooked. The juice ("pot liquor" over at home) is great with cornbread, or, even better, crusty corn pone.
After the plants gain a little size, poke greens are also good. I prefer the asparagus-like shoots, but tender leaves and tops from older plants are also good. Just make sure that there is no tinge of red or purple and treat exactly as I described before for the shoots. I will give specific recipes in a bit.
Later in the season, the stalks get thick, and another delight, completely unlike the shoots or leaves can be had. Take stems up to an inch, more or less, and peel off all of the rind. This is the one exception to the "red or purple" rule. Peeling off the rind removes essentially all of any toxin, and the white core that remains can be sliced into about ¼ inch thicknesses perpendicular to the axis of the stem and fried. I did not have any stalks big enough to photograph, so that will come later in the season.
I have heard that the shoots make a good pickle, but have never tried to make them since I greedily eat all that I can find as a potherb. I will give the recipe that Euell Gibbons published in a bit.
Here are ones with which I have personal experience, and my take on each.
Baby Poke Shoots
Prepare the shoots as described above and season to taste with salt, butter, or bacon grease. Mrs. Translator likes to add a white sauce to them, while I like them as they are. Other sauces would be fine, like a Béarnaise or Hollandaise, but I would draw the line at a cheese based one to avoid swamping the flavor of the poke, but you might like it. It is OK to experiment.
This is what most folks think of when poke is on the menu. Those are the leaves and tender tops of the plant, and thus do not look like the tight shoots.
Parboil and cook the greens as mentioned earlier, then season as you like. These are excellent with what I call "pepper sauce", the vinegar from hot pepper pickles, sprinkled on them. One could use a sauce as well, but for greens that is not very traditional.
Poke Greens and Eggs
My Grandmother really liked this, but I love both eggs and poke because of their distinctiveness. However, this a traditional Southern dish and is made by taking cooked (not parboiled, completely cooked) poke greens and mixing with an equal volume of beaten egg. Scramble just like scrambled eggs and enjoy. I just now thought that this would be an excellent filling for a quiche, maybe with a little finely chopped cooked bacon or sausage.
Poke Greens with Eggs and Brains
I do not eat brains, but my Grandmother did. There is sort of an "ick factor" associated with them, at least to me, but this is another traditional Southern recipe. Take equal parts poke greens, eggs, and calf’s brains and scramble until done. Just not for me. Brains, testicles, uteri, and ovaries are not on my menu list, but lots of folks say that this is the ultimate use of poke.
Fried Poke Stems
Using a sharp knife, cut the stems (up to one inch diameter, give or take) into convenient lengths to handle. Peel off all of the rind (I find it easier just to use my fingernails with a knife just here and there) until only a white pithy center is left. Take corn meal (I prefer white, but yellow is fine) and add salt and pepper to taste. Slice the stem pith about ¼ inch thick and place in a bowl. Take an egg and separate the white and add about ¼ cup of water to it, then whisk until blended. Unlike okra, poke does not have a natural mucilage that holds the meal, so the egg and water makes up for it. Add the egg/water mix to the sliced poke stems and swish around a bit, until coated, then drain slightly. Dredge the coated poke stem slices in the corn meal mix and fry at 375 degrees until just golden. Serve piping hot and just see how much is left after seconds and thirds. I like to use a 50/50 mixture of soy and canola oil, with a tablespoon of bacon grease for flavor.
Canning and freezing
Like any other vegetable, poke is better frozen than canned, but unlike most, it does not suffer that much from canning. That is because it needs more cooking than very tender greens, like spinach, which I believe to be completely ruined by the canning process.
To can poke:
You can process both the shoots and the greens the same. Parboil as I indicated at the top of the post, then drain, rinse with hot water, and pack into clean Mason jars. Add ½ tsp salt to each pint (1 tsp for each quart) and top off with boiling water. Take a butter knife and chase out any air pockets.
Wipe the rims, and apply a standard lid and ring, screwing it on hand tight. Place in your pressure canner and process at ten pounds of pressure for 70 minutes for pints, 90 minutes for quarts. Allow the pressure canner to come to ambient temperature without any intervention, and when the pressure is gone, place the jars on a towel with some airspace between them, and out of any draft. You will hear the lids sealing with a definite "ding". After they are all sealed, remove the rings and wash them for future use, and wipe the Mason threads with a clean, wet cloth. Store in the cool and dark for up to a couple of years. If you are like me, they will not last that long.
To eat, empty the jar of poke into a vessel and add an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add bacon grease or butter (never can anything with added fat, because shelf life is significantly shortened) and simmer, uncovered, for at least ten minutes before tasting. This is important. Low acid foods like poke, or any green, is susceptible to Clostridium botulinum, which produces the extraordinarily toxic botulism toxin. Simmering in an open container for ten minutes degrades this toxin. It is important to have it open, because atmospheric oxygen is part of the process to degrade it.
To freeze poke:
To freeze, just take the parboiled material and chill it quickly in ice water. Pack into bags or other containers, and do not forget to identify the contents with the date included, and remove any air in the container. This is almost like fresh, and is great. I just do not have enough freezer space for it, and it cans well.
Well, that is about it. Oh, I forgot Mr. Gibbons pickle recipe. Since I have never tried it, I will blockquote.
"Boil some vinegar with 1 tablespoon each of salt, sugar and mixed pickling spices added to each quart. [Doc’s comment: Use enamelware or stainless steel, not aluminum]. Pour boiling water over the sprouts and let stand 20 minutes. Drain and cover with fresh boiling water, this time letting it stand only 3 minutes. Drain quickly, pack the hot sprouts loosely into jars, cover with the boiling vinegar and seal at once. These will be ready to use in about a month." This is taken from Stalking the Wild Asparagus, copyright 1962, page 176.
I left something important out of this diary. When I pick, cook, eat, or can poke, I am seven years old again, and helping my grandmother ("Ma"). She is vigorous, and healthy and full of energy and fun. Smells have extremely powerful memory triggering properties, and I am back with her when I work with poke. Now do you see why I like it so much?
Warmest regards to all, and I will stick around for a while for questions and clarifications. Warmest regards, Doc.