Wapato, arrowhead, katniss, duck potato: Sagittaria latifolia and its cousins are aquatic tubers that live in American marshes. They are said to be every bit the equal of a potato. Sadly, I have never found it, despite quite a bit of searching. But my friend Sam Thayer sent me some wapato flour last week, so I finally got my first tantalizing taste of this elusive tuber.
Sam, as some of you may know, is the author of the two best foraging field guides I know of, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. He and I were supposed to venture into the swamps of his native Wisconsin this past October in search of wapato, but at the last minute something came up and we passed each other like ships in the night. I was bummed, because Sam says there are patches of wapato near him that stretch into the hundreds of acres.
Apparently the key to finding duck potatoes is to look for permanent marshes, which are not so common around here. Northern California can be one big swamp in winter, with all the flooded rice fields and wildlife refuges. But most of that dries up in summer, so the plant can’t survive. And I’ve never seen its distinctive leaves in the swamps of summer.
Arrowhead is actually a collection of species; the one with the largest tubers is Sagittaria latifolia. There are others, with smaller tubers, including S. rigida and S. cuneata. All are edible.
The plant gets it’s name from the leaves, which look like arrowheads. The tubers live in the muck under the water, and you need to get into that muck in September or so, disturb it with your feet, and hope to see the duck potatoes float to the surface. I’d planned to do this in duck hunting waders, but Sam prefers to strip down to bare feet to feel the tubers better. Chilly.
Once you get your potatoes, which can be anywhere from walnut-sized to the size of a good Yukon Gold, you wash them well, dry them and store in the fridge. To cook, you peel (or not) and cook just like potatoes. Sam makes his flour by boiling arrowhead, mashing it, drying it out, then grinding it in a spice grinder.
It looks exactly like yellow cornmeal, only not quite so yellow. Sam only had 1/2 cup of arrowhead flour to spare — just enough to tantalize me, to force me to venture back to Wisconsin next fall — so with so little flour to play with, I followed my first instinct: Make pasta with it.
Over the years I’ve learned you can put a little powdered anything into a regular pasta dough and it will work. I’ve done acorn flour, chickpea flour, chestnut flour, porcini powder, powdered garlic, tomatoes, etc. So I saw no reason not to make arrowhead pasta.
First I ground it even finer so it would incorporate seamlessly with the Italian “oo” flour I use. And since the wapato is yellowish, I thought I’d kick up the canary by making this an eggy pasta. In went 2 whole eggs plus 3 extra egg yolks. I wanted some bite to the pasta so I made it a spaghetti alla chitarra, with my chitarra pasta cutter — it looks like a funny mandoline or lute, and you roll the pasta dough through the “strings” of the “guitar,” which cuts the noodles. To release the pasta, you play the guitar. My chitarra has two sides, one for flat fettucine, one for a sort of square spaghetti; I chose the spaghetti side.
Sam says arrowhead tastes more or less like potatoes, with a slight bitterness (which is, apparently, mostly in the skin) and a faint corn-like sweetness. I had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that I did not want to drown the pasta in a heavy sauce.
Since wapato is also called duck potato, I thought I’d play with the duck part. It just so happens that gadwall, canvasbacks, geese, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, bluebills, ruddy ducks, ring-necked ducks, pintail and mallards all eat the seeds and/or tubers of sagittaria, so pretty much any duck we shoot in Northern California would work with them.
I decided to saute some finely minced shallot in wild duck fat, then added some wild duck demi-glace, the grated zest of a lemon, lotsa parsley, black pepper and a little grated pecorino cheese. I boiled the arrowhead pasta until it floated, let it boil another minute or so, then moved it to the boiling sauce and tossed to combine. Pretty simple.
Holly and I dug in and searched for the arrowhead flavor. I actually did catch a little of that corn-like sweetness, although I only identified it as an unusual sweetness when we ate. What was clearer was the texture of the pasta: Meaty, al dente like a dried pasta. This texture is pretty unusual in a fresh pasta, and we both liked it a lot.
So much so that I wish we had more to play with. Oh well. I plan on picking up my search for the elusive arrowhead after duck season. And I may yet get myself back to Wisconsin to see that wapato paradise Sam keeps talking about. Someday…
Admittedly this is a pretty unrepeatable recipe as written. Few people have arrowhead flour made from Sagittaria latifolia hanging around in their pantry. So skip that part and just make some pasta with this sauce; maybe add some fine yellow cornmeal to approximate the color. Or you could even just buy some good pasta and make the sauce -- if you do that, this recipe can come together in minutes... If you have duck fat and duck demi-glace hanging around. You can buy duck fat and duck demi online, or you can render your own duck fat and make your own duck demi. Still too much bother? Then use butter and beef stock boiled down by half.
- 1/2 cup arrowhead flour or extra-fine yellow cornmeal
- 1 1/2 cups Italian "oo" flour or all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 whole eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons duck fat or butter
- 1/4 cup minced shallot
- 3/4 cup duck demi-glace
- Grated zest of a lemon
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Grated pecorino or parmesan cheese for garnish
- To make the pasta dough, whisk together the two flours and the salt, then make a well in the center of the flour. Add the eggs and extra yolks and mix into a stiff dough. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until the dough becomes elastic. If you use wapato flour it will start out pretty sticky, then smooth out after a few minutes of kneading.
- Coat the dough with a little olive oil and cover in plastic wrap for at least 30 minutes; an hour is better. Roll out the dough in a pasta maker or with a rolling pin. Cut into long pasta. I use my chitarra to make a sort of square spaghetti, but you could make fettucine, linguine or the even wider pappardelle and it would still be good. Make sure you have plenty of flour to keep the noodles from sticking to each other.
- Don't make the sauce until you already have a large pot of salty water boiling. To start, saute the shallot in a large pan in the duck fat until the shallots just barely begin to brown. As soon as you see the edges start to brown, add the duck demi-glace. Now is the time to add the pasta to the boiling water.
- As the pasta boils, add the lemon zest and parsley to the boiling sauce. You want it to boil down almost to a glaze, which is why you do this in a large, wide frying or saute pan. When the pasta is ready, about 2 minutes, transfer it to the pan with the sauce with tongs. You actually want some of the pasta cooking water to come along for the ride. Toss to coat, let the liquid almost boil away and serve at once, garnished with grated cheese.