Monthly Archives: July 2012

Epazote, a Mexican herb

Epazote, a culinary herb from Mexico

A few weeks ago I wrote about Jacqueline Soule’s new book Father Kino’s Herbs.  I was delighted to learn more about epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides)  because I had recently planted some in my yard.  Unlike some of the other herbs Soule writes about, epazote originated in the New World.  It was traded in the marketplace at Tenochitlan in Central Mexico as early as the 1530’s.  Mexicans who made their way north to what is now Arizona brought epazote seeds with them and it was found in the gardens at San Xavier del Bac, a Kino mission outside of Tucson.

The most widely known use for epazote is to cook it with a pot of beans.  It not only gives black beans a special little zing of flavor, but it also helps break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins and renders beans less gas-producing.  Epazote can sometimes be found dried, but according to Soule,  the dried herb carries the flavor but not the digestive benefits.  If that’s what you seek, you’ll need a fresh plant in your yard or in a pot on your patio or balcony. Epazote is also used in green chile sauces and in dishes traditionally cooked in Yucatan and Veracruz.  While it is an essential flavor component in some of these dishes, on its own it is bitter and medicinal tasting.

In the United States, epazote is sometimes called American wormseed, Jesuit tea or Jerusalem oak — the latter probably because the shape of the leaf is a little like an oak.

Cherry Pickin’

Picking luscious Queen Ann cherries in California.

I’m a real desert rat, but when the temperatures get into the double digits regularly,  I get a yen to check out other ecosystems.  This year my husband and I visited our friends Mal and Susan Terrence who live in Humbolt County near the Salmon River in far northern California.  What a pleasure to be in a place that has an abundance of water for gardening and household use.  I went crazy picking cherries, rhubarb, pea pods, raspberries, greens and big flower bouquets from Sue’s garden.   Cherries have pits that must be removed if you are going to cook with them, and there are several clever devices for cutting them out.  Here’s a simple plastic device that stamps out the pits and collects them in a little plastic bin.  The cherry rolls out into your pan.  It isn’t 100 percent accurate so you need to check each cherry.

Using plastic cherry pitter.

We mixed the pitted cherries with a little sugar and made a topping from oatmeal, butter, brown sugar and a little flour.  Then we put it in the solar oven.

Positioning cherry crisp in the solar oven.

Here’s a picture of the result.  It gotten eaten so fast that I didn’t get a photo of the whole dish.  I rescued this last piece for a picture.

Last serving of the delicious cherry crisp.

Another Way to Use Mesquite

Make a delicious brunch coffee drink with mesquite broth, milk and whipped cream.

If you’ve gathered your mesquite pods and put them aside to dry until  grinding in the fall, you might be anxious to try a little something with mesquite now.  This luscious drink that I call a Gila Monster is easy to make.  First boil some mesquite pods in plenty of water until soft.  After everything has cooled down, plunge your hands in and wring and tear the pods until all the sweet goodness goes into the water.  This is a great activity for kids.  Strain off the broth which I admit is going to look a bit like dirty dishwater. Discard the seeds and fiber.

Now you can use this sweet broth for drinks or pudding.  For adults, make a mixture of coffee, milk, and mesquite broth. Top with whipped cream.  A shot of Kahlua or hazelnut liqueur is a delicious addition.  For kids, you will probably want to omit the coffee or cut it back to a tablespoon or two.

It isn’t hard to invent ways to use mesquite broth. For inspiration and other recipes using mesquite broth, take a look at my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.

Saguaro Harvest Season

Close-up of ripe saguaro fruit

Finally it is saguaro season.  The red objects on saguaro that look like flowers are actually fruit.  Since I’m kind of a wimp about the heat, my favorite time to gather saguaro fruits is right after dawn when it is coolest on the desert.  Tohono O’odham women used a saguaro rib, or maybe two lashed together, to push the fruits off the plant.  I have resorted to a metal fruit picker.  It helps to both dislodge the fruit and collect it in the attached basket.  If a ripe fruit that has opened falls to the ground, it picks up a lot of gravel.

Bird having saguaro breakfast.

Another reason to get up early, is that the birds are out early too, anxious to breakfast on any fruits that have just opened.  I usually clean the fruit in the field, scraping the pulp out of the rind into a clean bucket.  But tradition says that when you discard the rind, you should always do so with the red part up for that brings the rain (and boy, do we want the rain!)

Inside of the saguaro rind.

So what will you do with your saguaro fruit?  The easiest thing to do is mix some into a fruit salad.  You can also mush it up and stir some into softened ice cream and then refreeze.  Sometimes I measure a one-cup amount, put it in a small zipper freezer bag and freeze it flat for use later in the year.

Halved saguaro fruit.

If you want to separate the juice and seeds, soak the fruit in as much water as you have pulp.  Plunge your hands in to break up the clumps.  After a little while, pour off the liquid and boil to reduce.  Add some sugar and cook it down further to make syrup.  Spread the remaining seeds out to dry.

Saguaro seeds drying.

The seeds are high in vitamin C and can be stored for use in baked goods such as quick breads and cookies.

Delicious saguaro bread.

It’s easy to use saguaro fruit in your favorite recipes.  For other ideas and tested recipes, check out my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  Thank you to Connie Lauth for some of these saguaro photos.