Monthly Archives: June 2012

Mesquite Harvest Season

Amy Valdes Schwemm educates about mesquite gathering and cooking.

The first crop of mesquite pods is ripe and many have fallen to the ground.  If you want to have your own stock of mesquite meal for baking, this is the time to begin gathering.  I have to admit to having raked up bushels of lovely fat mesquite pods from the trees in front of my house and tossed them in the garbage.  Am I nuts?  No — despite their beautiful appearance, these pods taste chalky and bad.  Several decades ago we planted quickly growing Chilean or South American mesquite trees. They are lushly beautiful, but if I had it to do over again, I’d plant native mesquites. They would have grown more slowly but provided me with a great crop of delicious mesquite pods.  I’ve managed to begin a collection of  honey mesquite pods and will add to it as more pods become ripe.

Reddish mesquite pods at the top, buff-colored below

If you are unclear which pods are tasty and how and when to gather them,  food expert Amy Valdes Schwemm is giving a free mesquite harvesting workshop on June 28, 2012 from 4 to 7 PM at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market in Tucson.  If you can’t make it,  just be sure to gather from native trees.  Many mesquite trees will put out a second crop of pods in the fall.  Amy is one of the editors of the community-produced cookbook Eat Mesquite with lots of fabulous recipes for your delicious mesquite meal.

I keep my pods in five-gallon paint buckets in my shed awaiting the Desert Harvesters grinding sessions in the fall.  There are several opportunities beginning in November in Tucson.  You can also find grinding sessions  in Phoenix and Sierra Vista.  If you and a large group of friends want to sponsor a grinding, Desert Harvesters will send a hammermill and experienced operators to you.

Mesquite pods with bruchid beetle holes.

Through the summer your mesquite pods will probably develop some holes where the bruchid beetles have eaten their way out.  The eggs are deposited in the flowers so the beetles are a integral part of the pod, not a later infestation.  If  you don’t want the holes, you can freeze your pods for a while.  It’s a personal decision — either you freeze the beetle inside or let it crawl out leaving behind the odd leg or antenna.  Either way, just consider it more protein.  The Native Americans in the area have been eating them for millenia with no problem.

For more recipes for mesquite meal and other desert delicacies, check out my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants. 

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Look Who’s Cooking with Nopalitos

Jim Hastings during a nopalito demonstration.

It’s always exciting to encounter someone as passionate about edible wild plants as I am.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Jim Hastings from El Paso, Texas,  who calls himself The Gringo Gourmet.  He gave several  demonstrations on cooking with nopalitos at the recent convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society held in Tucson.   I wasn’t attending the meeting but a friend called and said, “You’ve got to come down tomorrow and meet this guy.”

I found a true believer and a genuine nice fellow who has been bitten by the cactus bug.  Here’s Jim’s recipe for Nopales and Green Chile Tart:

1 package puff pastry

1 cup nopalitos diced to 1/4-inch

2 tablespoons olive or canola oil

1 cup peeled and seeded roasted green chiles, diced to 1/4-inch

1/2 cup peeled and seeded roasted red bell pepper, roughly chopped

2-3 finely chopped garlic cloves

8 ounces whipped cream cheese

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Open puff pastry and set out to thaw according to package instructions.  Saute nopalitos in oil until army green and slime has evaporated.  Let cool.  Stir together cooled nopalitos, green chile and garlic.

Unfold puff pastry onto a baking sheet. Moisten seam between sheets and seal together.  Trim dough to fit pan, using trimmings to fill sides.  Lightly score around perimeter of dough about 1/4 inch.

Blend oregano into whipped cream cheese.  Spread cheese mixture evenly over dough inside the score line.  Spread nopalitos, chile and garliclmixture over cheese.  sprinkle red peppers over green chile.

Bake at 400 degrees F. for 10-12 minutes  until pastry puffs and is golden.  Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes. Then cut into 2-inch squares and enjoy.

Here is a photo of some of  Jim’s food.  You can spot the nopalitos.

Sampling of Jim’s nopalito dishes.

Into the Mainstream

I was also surprised to find a recipe for Garden Salsa Jam using nopalitos in the June issue of “Better Homes and Gardens.”  It was submitted by Jean Groen of Apache Junction, Arizona, a small town south of Phoenix.  I couldn’t find it on-line so can’t provide a link.  A Google search of Mrs. Groen shows she has a home ec background and has written a book on the edible plants of the Superstition Mountains near Apache Junction.  The recipe in the magazine calls for jarred nopalitos, but I’m guessing that was an addition by the editors to make it possible for folks outside the Southwest to try it.  When nopalitos, fresh or jarred,  make it into “Better Homes and Gardens magazine,” they are well on their way into the mainstream.

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You can find more recipes for nopalitos in my books The Prickly Pear Cookbook (Rio Nuevo Press)  and Cooking the Wild Southwest (University of Arizona Press), as well as complete instructions on how to gather, clean and prepare the cactus stems.

Saguaros Ripening: Sign of Summer

Top of saguaro with ripening fruit

The saguaro fruit have set and will be ripening over the next three or four weeks.  The skinny little fruit in the photo above will grow fatter and the insides will turn red, juicy and sweet. Occasionally you’ll see something that looks like a red flower, but that is just a fruit that has ripened and opened.  The red is the inside of the exterior rind stained red by the ripe fruit.

Imagine that you were a Tohono O’odham living on the Sonoran Desert 200 years ago.  Human beings from the dawn of time have loved sweet things, but you haven’t had anything sweet since the prickly pears last fall.  Oh, maybe a little bit of honey snatched at great peril from some bees. Saguaro juice is deliciously sweet.  It’s also getting very hot and it hasn’t rained for many weeks. In the mornings you might do some work getting your small field ready to plant a little corn and some tepary beans once the rains start.  In the afternoon, you seek the shade.

The heat builds every day. The very air shimmers. Everyone is waiting for the rains to come and cool the temperatures a bit. The clouds begin building up about the time the saguaro fruit is ripe. Every year since the beginning of memory, the people of your village, mostly relatives, have gone to cactus camp for the saguaro harvest. While there, you’ll all participate in a rain-making ceremony called the nawai’t. Some of the saguaro juice will be made into wine and at night the spiritual elders will pass the wine, and amid speeches, you and your relatives (while slightly drunk) will “sing down the clouds.”

Even those of us who can wait out June in air-conditioned comfort still look forward to the coming monsoons.  And the saguaro harvest.

(You can learn more about how the desert Indians used saguaro fruit in my book American Indian Cooking, Recipes from the Southwest.  Try creative modern recipes for saguaro fruit with recipes from Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.)