Monthly Archives: May 2013

Amy Makes Nopales

Amy Valez Schwem discusses nopales at the Tucson Mercado.

Amy Valdez Schwem discusses nopales at the Tucson Downtown Mercado.

Prickly pear cactus of all species are currently putting out their new leaves and there is more than one way to turn them into something good to eat.  Recently Amy Valdés Schwemm demonstrated her method at the Tucson Mercacdo farmer’s market. No surprise, she does things a little differently than I do.  She was demonstrating on pads from the big Mexican cactus called Ficus indica.  The variety doesn’t grow wild in Arizona but is prevalent in many yards.

Pick the new cactus pads when they are about the side of your hand.

Pick the new cactus pads when they are about the side of your hand.

Amy begins by burning off some of the stickers over a flame, then cuts out the remaining thorns one by one. I go after them more vigorously and scrape the surface of the pad.

Amy using tongs to burn off stickers.

Amy using tongs to burn off stickers.

Next Amy cooks the pads whole in a little oil turning with tongs.  I’ve always cut my nopales into little pieces (nopalitos) first, but this may be a better method as you don’t have to flip all the individual bits.  After the pad is cooked,  Amy then cuts it into nopalitos.

Amy prepares the sauce from one of her mole mixes.

Amy prepares the sauce from one of her mole mixes.

Amy prepared a sauce for the nopalitos from one of her delicious signature Mano y Metate mole mixes.  This sauce goes well with the cooked nopalitos and the sap from the nopalitos helps to thicken the sauce.

A selection of Amy's mole mixes.

A selection of Amy’s mole mixes.

The finished dish. Yum!

The finished dish. Yum!

During Amy’s presentation I also learned another surprising fact about nopalitos.  They freeze nicely (I’ve been discouraging my students from freezing them, assuming that the cell walls would collapse).  Also attending Amy’s presentation was Matts Myhrman, a friend from decades ago when we were younger and used to gather to share information at The Tepary Burrito Society. Matts brought some nopalitos he had prepared from an abundant crop of cow tongue prickly pear.  He had more than he could eat and froze some. Once defrosted, the nopalitos had lost some crispness but would be perfect for including in a sauce.  Even more amazing, they were not at all slimey.


If you have a yard full of prickly pear pads and are wondering about some ideas for what to do with them, check out my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  and the Prickly Pear Cookbook. For inspiration and directions on what wild plants are available in what season, watch a short video here.  


Heritage Wheat

Early morning wheat harvesting by hand at Ramona Farms

Early morning wheat harvesting by hand at Ramona Farms.

Heritage tomatoes with their odd shapes and color but superior flavor began appearing in mainstream markets about a decade ago. Now other heritage foods are becoming popular among them, wheat.  Smithsonian Magazine ran an article on the rise of artisanal wheat that you can read here. Last weekend I joined about a dozen others in harvesting two varieties of heritage wheat at Ramona Farms near Sacaton, just south of Phoenix.  The farm is owned by Ramona Button, who is half Pima and half Tohono O’odham, and her husband Terry, who is all farmer.  The wheat wasn’t ripe, but we wanted to get it at the green “milk” stage.

Durum wheat, prized by Italians for pasta.

Durum wheat, prized by Italians for pasta.  The beards  (spikey parts) help with photosynthesis.

Pima club wheat is low in glutin and makes good cookies and pastry.

Pima club wheat is low in gluten and makes good cookies and pastry.

Wheat was brought to Sonora, Mexico, and eventually to Southern Arizona by Father Eusebio Kino and other Catholic missionaries in the sixteenth century.  It was a hit with the local inhabitants because wheat grows through the winter and gave the Native Americans something to eat in the spring when they had used up their wild foods  stored in the fall and were going hungry.  They didn’t wait for the wheat to all ripen, but began eating  it as soon as the berries were plump.  When they roasted the grain heads over a fire, the hulls blackened, but because the inside was moist, the grain itself just toasted.  Then they rubbed off the black part and ate the delicious, smoky-flavored interior. The name of this food was dagivin, which translates roughly “to prepare it by rubbing.”  Middle Easterners also prepare wheat this way and call it freekeh.

Jared of Edible Baja Arizona doing some hand hand harvesting.

Jared McKinley of  the forthcoming Edible Baja Arizona doing some hand hand harvesting with a machete.

That's Gary Nabhan behind all that wheat.

That’s Gary Nabhan behind all that wheat.

Jeff  Zimmerman, who runs Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, produces flour from heritage wheat grown in Arizona. Here he and his son-in-law work on roasting the wheat over a fire.  The story of how and why he began the business of stone-grinding heritage wheat in 2010 is fascinating and you can read it here from a story in the Arizona Republic.

Raking out the toasted wheat.

Raking out the toasted wheat.

The roasted wheat.

The roasted wheat.

Roasted wheat berries with blackened hulls rubbed off.

Roasted wheat berries with blackened hulls rubbed off. Nutritious, tasty, full of fiber and B vitamins, but probably not for the average American palate.

Interested in more heritage recipes?  Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious recipes for 23  easily recognized and gathered southwest plants.  Find out how top restaurant and resort chefs are using traditional Southwest foods in new and exciting ways in The New Southwest Cookbook.  For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.

Elderberry Flower Season Again

When the last of the desert wildflowers have wilted, it’s time for elderberry bushes to flower and remind us that it is still spring.  This year it is most appropriate to gather elderblow (the word for the flowers) because 2013 is the Year of the Elder.  Later in summer, the blue black berries are an enticement to both birds and humans.

The following is written by Dr. Jacqueline Soule, adapted from her book Father Kino’s Herbs.

From Dr. Soule:

“Here in the southwest we have the Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). Common names include saúco, tapiro, flor de sauz, capulin silvestre (Spanish); shiksh (O’odham); and bixihumi (Nahutal). Elders are in the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle Family, although some botanists now consider this the moschatel family, Adoxaceae, which includes Viburnum.

“Mexican elder is a deciduous tree that can reach 20 to 30 feet high, spreading to 20 feet wide when grown in full sun in average, well-drained soil and with ample moisture.  Elder is very versatile and various parts of the plant have uses that include: cosmetic, culinary, dye, edible flowers, medicinal, ornamental, and to attract wildlife.

“There are numerous species of elder found around the world, mostly in more temperate areas.  All species have more or less edible berries, although some species can be toxic without special preparation.  (Note from Carolyn: In one of my first forays into eating straight from the desert back in 1970, I made myself very ill by eating raw elderberries.  Hours lying on the bathroom floor wondering if I’d live.  Not everyone reacts this way,  but be very careful. Flowers and cook berries are fine.)


“Most European species of Sambucus are shrubby, thus early European explorers such as Father Kino must have been surprised to discover Sonoran elderberry trees thirty feet tall.  Undaunted, he encouraged planting the native elderberry trees in the mission gardens.

“The wood of elderberry trees has a lovely grain and tone and is prized for musical instruments, including drums, flutes and a didgeridoo-like instrument.  The nectar-rich flowers are harvested for elder champagne and other drinks. The flowers are also dipped in batter and fried or added to omelets and cakes.  Also, an edible fungus known as the jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) grows on elder wood.

“In the Old World, virtually all species of elder flowers and berries have been used medicinally since at least Egyptian times.  The dried flowers are made into an infusion as a febrifuge (Note from Carolyn: that’s a medication that reduces fever).  The berries are said to help the immune system ward against and fight off infections, colds, and flus.  Berries for this are gently heated to make a syrup, made into tinctures, or dried and subsequently made into infusions.  Recent evidence indicates that black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) does indeed help the body fight off influenza, reducing illness to a mere two to three days as opposed to two to three weeks for those who had taken the placebo.”

If Dr. Soule’s information has you interested, you can try the following whether you are ill or not.

Spring Tea

For a refreshing spring tea, cover dried or fresh elderberry flowers, a little fresh mint, and some culinary lavender buds with boiling water.  Let steep overnight, drain.  Taste and dilute as necessary.  Can add club soda or sparkling mineral water. Serve over ice.

Interested in more recipes for wild desert foods?  Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious mesquite recipes as well as recipes for 22 other easily recognized and gathered southwest plants.  For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.