I was taking a walk with my girlfriend around the farm, enjoying all of the green starting to show. When we passed by the bubbling spring where the watercress grows, I noticed a bud I’d never seen before-a little broccoli looking guy in shades of green and red.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that new growth is the sweetest, and most tender a plant has to offer, so just in case, I took a few to show my friend Kenton, since knows a lot more about plants in the area than I do (he’s the creative force behind ReWild University, check it out.)
After talking we figured out they were red elder buds. Most of the time I think of elder, or Sambucus species, I think of their berries, or flowers for making jams, jellies, sauces, vinegar, and sweet things. I’d never thought of it as a vegetable, but their little buds definitely weren’t fruit, yet.
Before eating any I made sure to do my homework. At first I thought that I wouldn’t be able to eat any since a lot of the information online says that they contain cyanide. Digging a little deeper gave me a few articles to the contrary though. From what I can come up with, it seems that elder definitely contains problem compounds (called cyanogenic glycosides) but a lot of other plants that we eat contain these too, like the following:
- Lima Beans
- Stone Fruit Pits
- Apple Seeds
- Flax Meal
- Bamboo shoots
The cyanogenic glycosides, like a lot of other compounds in plants that cause tummy problems, seem to be destroyed or at least greatly reduced by cooking. Here’s an example in reference to cassava.
“Cooking: boiling of cassava leaves in water with added paln oil resulted in a decrease in cyanogen levels of 96->99% (Ngudiet al., 2003). Cooking of various cassava products (baton de manioc, fufu) resulted in reduction of the total cyanogen content of 32-55% (Agbor-Egbe and Lape Mbome, 2006)
Another helpful article I found was Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Here’s her reference directly regarding red elder:
“They say that the various species of Sambucus are toxic. They aren’t, very. You’ll find the mildly toxic cyanoglycoside sambunigrin in the leaves and unripe fruits of Sambucus species. The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is the most toxic of the three species, but it’s toxicity is confined to a tummy ache. The annual dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus) is considered completely nontoxic. The seeds of all Sambucus species contain a resin which is a nauseant and diuretic: this resin is destroyed by cooking. (That’s from Buff + v.d.Dunck: Giftpflanzen in Natur und Garten, 1998.)
Obviously I’m lobbying for the edibility of these little buds because I want to eat them. It’s clear though that they probably shouldn’t be eaten raw in large quantities.I’m not a botanist, but from experience I know that cooked things are as a general rule, safer to eat than not cooked things, for example, morels, various boletes, and day lilies-which I’m allergic to raw in all forms sans the flower petals.
I’ll add too, that over the years I’ve made plenty of pickled elderberry “capers” from young, immature fruits, and I’m not the only chef to do so. When I ate at Saison last year, they served me a pile of pickled elderberries on top of a slow roasted beet, which was very good. After I felt like I’d done my homework I cooked some up, just a few. I blanched them in salted water and shocked them in an ice bath, not just to cook them, but also to check and see if their chlorophyll is preserved through the blanching process since vibrant green food is more appetizing than brown, which it is.
In the end, I didn’t have any problems, and I had a number of modest servings of cooked elder buds in combination with other spring vegetables. They’re mildy flavored, and soak up a pan juice just like a nub of broccoli. Here’s a fun springy recipe with them. Maybe it can give you a little inspiration.
Lamb Roast With Morel Mushroom Jus and Spring Vegetables
Serve with some nice bread to finish off the plate.
- 1 lb lamb roast (use a cut from the leg like a top or bottom round)
- 12 ounces mixed spring vegetables
- 3 cups homemade lamb stock made from roasted bones
- Handful of small fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned, rinsed if needed and left whole
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- Dried morel stems, ground to powder to yield 2 tablespoons
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons animal lard or cooking oil
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a non-reactive saucepot, cook the morel powder with the wine until reduced by half, then add the stock and continue to cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, strain and reserve the jus.
- Blanch the vegetables in salted water, then shock in an ice bath to preserve their color, drain and reserve.
- Season the lamb roast with salt and pepper, then sear in 1 tablespoon of the lard in hot pan on both sides until caramelized. Transfer the lamb roast to a baking sheet with a roasting rack and cook at 250 F until a thermometer reads 110 degrees for medium rare, 120 for medium-ish. (longer cooking at a lower temperature yields a more evenly cooked piece of meat.)
- Take the lamb roast out of the oven and allow it to rest in a warm place for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat the jus, whisk in the tablespoon of unsalted butter, then quickly cook the morels and vegetables in the remaining tablespoon of lard, and season to taste.
- Plate the dish by arranging a bed of vegetables on a warmed dinner plate, slice the lamb against the grain into 1/4 inch thick slices, fan over the vegetables attractively, drizzle with the jus and serve immediately.