Foraging for Hopniss (Groundnuts)
Apios americana, also known as groundnut, also known as hopniss is a plant in the legume family, that is native to North America from Maine to Florida and as far west as Colorado. For the sake of this post, I will be calling it hopniss, which is derived from the Lenape word for this food. Although this vining plant has edible shoots and beans, it's the tubers that are highly sought after. Ranging from the size of a nickel to an avocado, the tubers grow in strings connected to each other.
Hopniss likes to live in moist sandy loam, and is most often found on the edges of rivers. While their tubers are often found right on the water's edge, the actual plant can often be found many feet away from the river bank.
Hey wait, didn't you talk about this last week? Nope! That was another Native American staple root crop, the jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke). You can read about it HERE.
Although very different, these two plants require very similar growing conditions and are often found together. After digging for hopniss, I went up about 20 miles upstream to the jerusalem artichoke patch to look for good flint-knapping chert.
I hadn't noticed it the week before, but I guess I had my hopniss eyes on because sure enough, there they were! On the banks of river, hopniss were exposed where the bank had been washed away and further up on the bank were the tall jerusalem artichoke stalks. Growing up these stalks were the hopniss vines. Like many legumes, hopniss tends to be vining, clinging onto whatever it can find within a few feet.
Such as the beans grow up the cornstalks in the famous three sisters style of garden, here were the groundnut vines growing up the jerusalem artichoke stalks- nature's three sisters! I wonder if there is a third on the ground like squash? I'll have to look closer next time.
This is what the hopniss looks like when it has been exposed by the water. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of the vegetative growth or flowers because they are not out this time of year, but if you can imagine, it looks a lot like a pea plant. The flowers are pink and very similar to many legumes except that they tend to grow in large, showy clusters rather than individual flowers. They're very attractive, google it.
The great thing about hopniss is that it can be harvest anytime of the year when the ground is not frozen. I find that it is often easiest to spot them from a canoe, but it is not necessary. Look for just a couple sticking out of the river bank, especially where has been some minor erosion recently. Remember that any sticking out are just the very tip of many, many feet of root system. If you bring a digging stick or shovel you can find much more, just be careful not to disturb the bank too much as you could risk causing some erosion. I find that it is just as easy to dig with your hands, following the strand deeper into the bank as you carefully root around.
Although hopniss can be cultivated, it is not a domestic plant. One of the reasons that it was never domesticated is that it takes at least two years to get sizable tubers. It is very easy to encourage its growth though! While harvesting, if you find any tubers that are imperfect or a little on the small side, go ahead and throw them back on the bank or even in the river, where they will sprout and create a whole new plant! Also, any that are exposed may be a little squishy. If you are finding this a lot, just dig into the dirt deeper, where the tubers will be harder.
I threw this tuber back in the water to colonize elsewhere. Be free little hopniss and grow many more hopniss babies!!
After harvesting for awhile, you should have a decent amount. You can harvest enough for a good meal in just 15 minutes or so, usually.
Don't forget to bring a harvesting basket (I ALWAYS do this and have to shove stuff in my pockets)!
If it is summertime, you can also collect the hopniss beans, but be aware that you really should cook them before eating.
Once you have harvested as many as you like, it's time to start cooking! Hopniss takes just a little bit longer to cook than potatoes, but other than that they act very similarly (i.e. they are the same texture and you can boil 'em, fry 'em, put 'em in a stew etc). They are much sweeter and nuttier than potatoes, though, and you don't have to skin them, unless you want to. I've heard that they are excellent when thinly sliced and fried to make chips! You can also dehydrate hopniss and grind it by hand or in food processor to make high protein, high start flour! Sort of like a mix between bean and potato flour.
I decided to make a stew with the ones I collected because I was short on time. Here's the recipe:
Stone Axe Herbals Springtime Stew
1/2 lb hopniss tubers (substitute potatoes or jerusalem artichokes)
1/4 lb fiddleheads (substitute any green veggie)
1/2 lb venison, cubed (substitute any meat)
2 TBS maple syrup or maple sugar, or to taste
Wash and cube your hopniss, or leave whole if they are small. Cube your venison or any other meat, game meat is recommended for an authentic taste, though. Wash fiddleheads and remove papery skins.
You will need to boil the fiddleheads for a couple of minutes to remove the tannins. After doing so, drain them and throw out the water.
Throw the hopniss, fiddleheads, meat, and maple syrup in a pot or slow cooker and cover with water, broth, or maple sap (if cooking in sap, omit syrup). Cook until meat is cooked through and hopniss is tender. Serve with extra maple syrup on the side so your guests can add it to their own taste.
Note: You can add salt if you like, and the taste would still be authentic, as it was commonly used by many Native American groups. The reason I seasoned this was maple syrup is because I wanted that springtime taste. It was very common for the Anishinaabe (whose cuisine I am more familiar with than any other Native American group) to season much of their food with maple, rather than salt.
I think next time, I will boil them briefly before frying the in copious amounts of deer fat with apples and possibly dried berries, before drizzling maple syrup over the top. Play around with it; don't feel like your tied to authenticity. Let me know how your experimenting goes! Or maybe you already have a great hopniss recipe- if so, I want to hear it!!
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any cook books with a ton of great hopniss recipes but here are a couple of ones that I love that discuss Native American foods:
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