Cooking with Kudzu
A sweet, intoxicating scent wafts on the late-summer breeze as I make my way to the house after doing chores at the barn. It makes me pause, breathe deeply, and smile. This special aroma heralds the arrival of kudzu blossom season!
Kudzu is the common name for Pueraria montana, an invasive vine with thick, tough stems and hairy leaves. It has a habit of being a little too familiar to some folks in the southern United States, where it’s classed as a noxious plant. Originally introduced to this country from Japan to curb soil erosion, kudzu has since been classified as an invasive species. Once it’s established, this nonnative green machine can easily engulf entire trees and turn picturesque hillsides into forbidding jungles.
Widely planted in the Southeast during the first half of the 20th century, kudzu was also utilized as an ornamental and forage crop. Cows and goats love it and will eat as much of the nutritious, hardy foliage as they can reach. Kudzu was even planted to bale for hay at one time. Those must’ve been some tough balers! Kudzu made itself right at home here and has spread extensively, despite official efforts to control it.
On days when kudzu is in bloom, though, I have a special reason to be at peace with the fact that the fencerow in our side yard is covered with the vine. Even this small patch on my property will produce a profusion of striking purple blossoms during the bloom window, which is July through September in my part of Alabama.
I’m eager to bring kudzu blossoms into my kitchen. Even though these blooms have an amazing fragrance, they’re a bit delicate as a cut flower. But when harvested, washed, and prepared, the blossoms lend a luscious flavor to homemade treats.
Harvest time is as soon as the plants are blooming strong and aromatic. You don’t want to wait too long after the blooming begins to harvest them, as the quality will degrade later in the season.
On approaching the towering vines, you’ll be greeted by a constant buzzing. Kudzu is a hospitable foliage, providing shade and feeding opportunities for many types of winged critters. The smell is beautiful. Some folks describe it as a grape-like, but to me it has a decided floral note.
Image by Maggie Bullington
Kudzu harvesting equipment is simple. I use a stout pair of kitchen shears, a basket, a ladder for collecting the higher blooms, and a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection.
Harvesting is also simple. Select stems with full clusters of blooms, and snip the clusters (or racemes) off the vine, leaving the greenery behind. Give each cluster a gentle shake to dislodge insects, and then drop it into your harvest basket. I’ve found it’s best to use a basket or strainer that will give enough air and space for bugs to escape. My own double-sided peanut basket holds a lot of kudzu clusters. As the mound of blossoms grows on each side, I know they’ll be enough for several projects! As I move up and down the ladder, walking along the vine’s trailing edges, the basket steadily fills with the best flower clusters. Soon it’s time to head to the kitchen and begin washing and preparing these beauties.
First, wash them several times in a big stainless steel bowl. I’m always amazed by how many little critters have managed to stow away. Be on a special lookout for kudzu bugs (Megacopta cribraria), which resemble stink bugs.
After the flower clusters have been thoroughly rinsed and are clean, the next step is to pluck off only the purple blooms and buds. Sometimes I do this while I’m harvesting to save a step: I simply grasp the purple blooms with my fingers and give them a gentle tug to release them from the green stem.
Selecting only the purple blossoms will give your projects the best flavor and color, and the washing stage is a great time to do a quality control check. Leave the green stems and blemished blossoms behind. If you raise goats, they’ll love to eat them.
I’ve rounded up three of my favorite kudzu recipes for you to try —
jelly, sorbet, and lemonade — all of which showcase kudzu’s floral flavor. Note that these recipes begin with the process of making a tea or cold infusion with the blossoms to create a flavored water. All of them also feature lemon juice; the addition of this natural acid is key to attaining a gorgeous pink-purple color.
What if kudzu doesn’t grace your area? Be thankful! Definitely don’t plant this noxious weed. You can experiment with many other types of flowers, including honeysuckle, in the kitchen. Search for edible floral treasures in your area — even the weedy ones — and discover the sweet rewards. As with kudzu, you may find that working with the blossoms in the kitchen is a satisfying way to make the best of the battle.
You can capture the kudzu harvest for winter with this classic recipe. Homemade kudzu jelly makes a great gift for family and friends.
Image by Maggie Bullington
YIELD: about 5 half-pint jars.
- 3 to 4 cups freshly picked, washed kudzu blossoms
- 3 cups water
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- One 1.75-ounce box fruit pectin
- 4 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon butter (optional)
1. In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine blossoms and water. Bring to a boil and promptly remove from heat; set aside to infuse for 10 minutes. Strain and discard the blossoms. You’ll be left with gray-colored kudzu water; re-strain this through a fine cloth or coffee filter. Pour the kudzu water into a 1-quart liquid measuring cup. Add lemon juice. The acidic lemon juice will turn the gray water pinkish-purple. If needed, add enough water to bring the mixture to 3 cups.
2. Transfer the kudzu water to a pot, stir in pectin, and bring the mixture to a full, rolling boil. Stir in sugar. Add butter at the same time, if desired, to reduce foaming.
3. Return to rolling boil. Boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off foam, and ladle into 5 sterile, hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Add canning lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Remove jars from bath, allow to come to room temperature, and finger-test the seal on the lids. Eat the contents of any unsealed jars immediately. Store sealed jars up to a year in a dark, cool place.
Kudzu Blossom Sorbet
This summer cooler is intensely flavored. For a palate-cleansing treat, serve this sorbet in small scoops and garnish with peppermint leaves and kudzu blossoms.
Image by Maggie Bullington
YIELD: about 3 cups.
- 2 cups freshly picked, washed kudzu blossoms
- 3 cups water, divided
- 1 cup sugar
- Juice of 2 lemons
1. In a glass container, submerge the blossoms in 21/2 cups of cool water, and allow them to soak overnight. The following morning, strain and discard the blossoms. Re-strain the gray-colored kudzu water through a fine cloth or coffee filter.
2. In a saucepan over low heat, make lemon syrup by dissolving the sugar in 1/2 cup water. Set aside to cool. Add lemon juice. Combine syrup and kudzu water. Place in the freezer in a nonreactive container with enough extra space for the mixture to expand. Every 2 hours, remove the container and break up the mixture with a fork. The sorbet is ready to eat when frozen but still scoopable. You can also pulse the frozen mixture in a blender to create a proper sorbet consistency.
This naturally pink lemonade is a refreshing summer drink. If you plan to serve this to guests, consider waiting to combine the kudzu and lemon mixtures until the party has begun so they can watch the virtually colorless liquids turn a vibrant pink — it’s dramatic!
Image by Maggie Bullington
YIELD: about 1/2 gallon.
- 5 cups freshly picked, washed kudzu blossoms
- 7-1/2 cups water, divided
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
1. In a glass container, submerge the blossoms in 7 cups of cool water, and allow them to soak overnight. The following morning, strain and discard the blossoms. Re-strain the gray-colored kudzu water through a fine cloth or coffee filter.
2. In a saucepan over low heat, dissolve the sugar in remaining 1/2 cup of water. Set aside to cool. Add lemon juice. Stir the lemon mixture into the kudzu water. Serve over ice.
Maggie Bullington lives in rural Alabama and enjoys flowers, food fresh from the garden, and handwritten letters. She’s also blessed to work with her brothers, who make handcrafted outdoor tools, available at Custom Hunting Knives and Wolf Valley Forge.
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