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It’s Mesquite Gathering Season

Yes, it’s that time again.  The mesquite pods are nice and tan, hanging from the trees and dropping to the ground.  If you want to have some pods to grind into meal in the fall, you’ve got to gather them now. (There may be another smaller harvest in the fall depending on the monsoons this year.)

Our friends at Desert Harvesters have been doing research on the best way to harvest and store your pods between now and grinding. Here is their advice:

Harvest BEFORE the first rain of the summer, or long after the rainy season in the dry conditions of late summer or fall. Rain on mature or nearly mature pods can cause a common soil fungus to grow on mesquite pods and many other crops. However, pods that were collected last year before the monsoons tested safe to eat. Avoiding visible mold DOES NOT insure safe pods. Dry the pods well before storage, and do NOT wash the pods.

IMG_0257This basket has both pink stripped and plain brown mesquite pods.  I am not sensitive enough to taste any difference.

Holes made by bruchid beetles.

Holes made by bruchid beetles.

If you dry your pods and store them in a nice dry place, perhaps your shed, you’ll come back in a couple of months and find them full of little holes.  We used to think that they had been infested. Nope.  The eggs for the bruchid beetles were laid on the mesquite flowers and the beetles are eating their way out.  Soo… here are the options. Freeze the pods and kill the beetles — at whatever stage they are. Or let them eat their way out, leaving behind the odd antenna or leg.  Hey, it’s all protein.

You’ll want to harvest from the native mesquite trees.  I planted South American mesquites on my tree lawn years ago and one of them produces the most gorgeous fat pods that look truly delicious. But, alas, they taste chalky so I just have to rake them up and toss them in the garbage.  Kills me — wish I had planted natives.

If you’d like to read more about mesquite,  check out Jacqueline Soule’s blog on mesquite here.

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Get ready for prickly pear and mesquite season with some fabulous recipes for the bounty you have gathered.  Check out my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest and The Prickly Pear Cookbook for delicious and inspiring ways to use these delicious wild treats.

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I’itoi Onions: Desert Savory

I finally decided it was time to put my vegetable garden to bed for the summer.  This involved pulling out the remaining I’itoi bunching (or multiplier) onions.  I’ve been using them all spring, but they are very prolific. One little onion that looks like this:

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A few months later, will have multiplied to this:

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I’itoi onions were brought to the Southwest in the 17th century by Spanish missionaries, but have become such a part of the Tohono O’odham biology that they are called by the name of their creation diety, Elder Brother, or I’itoi.  These little gems were beginning to die out when they were brought to Native Seeds SEARCH by a Tohono O’odham woman.  They are one of the plants in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. 

I’itoi onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are easy to grow — just plant each bulb about an inch below the surface and at least eight inches apart.  They will send up chive-like greens first that can be used until you decide they have multiplied enough and pull them up for use.  When you harvest the last clump in the summer,  put aside a dozen or so bulbs in a paper bag and set aside on a cool shelf to await fall.  (I find it amusing that the onions “know” when to start again — if I don’t get around to putting them back in the ground until later in September, I sometimes find that they have begun to sprout in anticipation.)

To prepare onions for cooking, first separate and clean off the dirt,  then peel.

Cleaned onions on the left, peeled on the right.

Cleaned onions on the left, peeled on the right.

Like most onions, these contain potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and vitamin B6. Onions contain substantially the same amount of vitamins and minerals when cooked.  I’itoi onions can be substituted for onions or shallots.  You can find them at farmers’ markets and from Crooked Sky Farms in Prescott and the Phoenix area and from Native Seeds SEARCH.

Cooked sweet and sour I'itoi onions

Cooked sweet and sour I’itoi onions

Here’s my recipe for sweet and sour I’itoi onions.  You can use red wine and red wine vinegar or white wine and white wine vinegar. Makes a great topping for grilled fish or chicken or mix it into steamed vegetables to add flavor.

1 cup cleaned and sliced I’itoi onions

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

2 tablespoons wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar or agave syrup

1/2 cup water (again)

In a large heavy frying pan, cook sliced I’itoi onions and water covered over very low heat for 10 minutes until soft.  Add wine, wine vinegar, olive oil and sugar or agave syrup.  Cook over very low heat for another 10 minutes.

Jacqueline Soule wrote a column about I’itoi onions for the Explorer and finished with a recipe for I’itoi onion and goat cheese scones. You can see it here. 

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If you are interested in wild and heritage foods of the Southwest, check out my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants, The New Southwest Cookbook,   and the Prickly Pear Cookbook. For inspiration and directions on what wild plants are available in what season, watch a short video here.  

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.

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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.)

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“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.

Bees: Our Garden Partners

Bee on Mt. Lemmon

Bee on Mt. Lemmon

I’ve been spending lots of time outdoors the last couple of weeks, working in my vegetable garden and hiking looking for spring edible wild plants.  Because of the all the attention on bees lately, I’ve been particularly aware of them and their role as the silent partners in my gardening and plant health in general.

Until recently when I considered bees, I thought of honey bees. They are actually an import from Europe and are the variety most associated with colony collapse disorder. (watch a video on this here)  Nobody is 100 percent sure of all the reasons for colony collapse disorder, but experts are fairly sure that part of the cause is related to agriculture chemicals. In fact, a speaker recently said that cities are currently the safest place for bees – agricultural lands are much too toxic! The grumpy and dangerous Africanize bees are a strain of honey bees.

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But in the Sonoran Desert we also have at least 1,000 species of native bees.  According to an Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website, “the region around Tucson is thought to host more kinds of bees than anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception of some deserts in Israel.”

The site goes on to say: “ Sonoran Desert bees range in size from the world’s smallest bee, Perdita minima, which is less than .08 inches (2 mm) to carpenter bees (the genus Xylocopa), gentle giants that may have body lengths of almost 1½ inches (40 mm) and weigh over a gram. Our native bees burrow into the ground or create nests inside hollow, pithy, dried stems or abandoned tunnels left by wood-boring beetles. All bees are herbivorous except for parasitic forms that prey on other bees.”  You can read more about what the Desert Museum has to say about bees here .

Female Carpenter Bee

Female Carpenter Bee

If you are a gardener, you know that your squash and pumpkin flowers need to be pollinated if you are going to have vegetables. Carpenter bees like the one above nest in dead trees and pollinate squash, eggplant, cotton, tomoatoes, mesquite, prickly pears and other local flowers. If there aren’t bees around to help pollinate your garden,  you have to get out there with a Q-tip and do it yourself. You can avoid this chore by attracting more bees to your garden with a bee box.  Tucson Botanical Gardens has directions on how to build one here.

(Linda McKittrick took all the lovely bee photos. )

 

Bacanora – our local spirit

Agave plant in the plantation.

Agave plant in the plantation.

This last weekend an importer of bacanora was giving tastes at a Tucson festival. Bacanora is to Sonora as tequila is to Jalisco and mezcal is to Oaxaca.  Bacanora is the third, less-known sister of the triumvirate. Our sample was delicious and smokey with just enough fire to let you know you were drinking.  This is how bacanora is described in Tequila: a natural and cultural history by Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan:

“Bacanora: A bootleg mescal made from the northernmost populations of Agave angustifolia var. Pacifica in sonora and adjacent Chihuahua, sometimes mixed…with A. palmeri. Named for the small rancheria of Bacanora near the pueblo of Sahuaripa, Sonora, this mescal was recently legalized and commercialized, but the clandestine cottage industry product by this name remains the pride of Sonorans.”

Last summer, I visted a mezcal-making exhibit — the process is the same.  These days most manufacturing is done in fancy factories with steel vats and antiseptic conditions.  These pictures show how it is done in the small rancherias.

This is the same method used by Apaches over hundreds of years to prepare agave for food.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

First a large quantity of wood is burned in the rock-lined earth oven. The agave hearts are then added, the whole pit is closed up and the agave is baked from one and one-half to three days.

Baked agave head

Baked agave head.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Once the agave heads are nicely baked and carmelized, they are cooled, unloaded and the leaves are separated.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves. Usually powered by a mule or burro.

The leaves are loaded into the mill, usually of volcanic rock,  and a draft animal goes round and round crushing the baked leaves to a pulp. Next the crushed pulp is loaded into a vat for fermentation. It stays there 6 to 12 days depending on the temperature.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

The next step is to distill the fermented liquid.  In our home process this is done in a simple oven-like still.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid again.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

One of the commerial bacanoras.

One of the commercial bacanoras.

Bacanora has now been legally sold since 1992. Old-timers still have nostalgia for the unmarked bottles obtained with a little stealth from a Mexican rancher friend.

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.