Tag Archives: edible wild plants

Dried Corn Dishes Smell Like Fall

I recently was privileged to participate in the pilot run of a Borderlands Heritage Food Tour organized by Dr. Rafael de Grenade. It will eventually be part of a broader tourism attraction initiative.  One of the first stops was the San Xavier Coop Farm where we saw their fields and also watched the preparation of the traditional cracked roasted corn product called ga’ivsa.  I had purchased some ga’ivsa from Ramona Farms on the Gila River Indian Reservation  a few months before, but stuck it in the pantry and waited to learn more about preparation.

Some women were processing the corn  into ga’ivsa during our visit and we got a close-up look at their work. First the corn had to be shucked of all the outer leaves, then it is put on a charcoal fire to roast.

Shucking the corn at San Xavier Coop Farm

Tohono O’odham women work at shucking the fresh corn at San Xavier Coop Farm.

Corn roasting over mesquite coals gets a delicious smoky flavor.

Corn roasting over mesquite coals gets a delicious smoky flavor that adds to any dishes you prepare.

It was still very hot on that day, so we all moved into the shade of a barn where Verna Miguel, a Tohono O’odham woman from the San Xavier section of the reservation, explained to us that traditionally  the corn was crushed manually.  But now they have a machine that cuts processing time dramatically.  You can see the machine behind Verna in the photo below.  They can feed in the whole cobs that have been roasted and dried and get cracked corn ready for packaging.

Verna Miguel discusses the products available from the San Xavier Cooperative Farm. Cracked corn processing machine in the background.

Verna Miguel discusses the products available from the San Xavier Cooperative Farm. Cracked corn processing machine in the background.

Preparing the ga’ivsa begins with simmering it in water to soften it.  Put it in a heavy bottom pot, cover with water and cook for about 30 minutes.  Watch closely and add water as needed.  The kernels will soften and swell.  Soon it will begin smelling smoky, sort of like ham. A traditional preparation is corn soup.  To add to the deliciousness, add some green chile and cheese and perhaps some chicken or vegetable base or bouillion.

Ga'ivsa soup with green chile and cheese.

Ga’ivsa soup with green chile and cheese.

With some cooked ga’ivsa left after the soup, I decided it would be great as a stuffing for a green chile.  I roasted a poblano chile I had in my refrigerator, peeled it and cleaned out the seeds inside. If you are new to roasting chiles, don’t be afraid to get the skin well charred so it will peel easily.

Roasted poblano chile before peeling.

Roasted poblano chile before peeling.

I then sauteed some I’itoi onions (you could used green onions),  and added those and some herbs to the cooked corn and stuffed it in the chile.  I topped it with a little fresh cheese and heated it up. Some ground chicken or leftover meat of any kind could also work well.  That became dinner.  I should have taken a picture of my husband tucking in.  He loved it.

Chile stuffed with cracked corn mixture.

Chile stuffed with cracked corn mixture.

Note: This is the 61st and last issue of Carolyn’s Southwest Kitchen. Starting in October, I will be joining a new blog with three other women, all of them experts in several aspects of Southwest food.  I have known each of them for years, and every time I’m with them I learn something new and exciting.  I’m thrilled to be sharing their expertise with all of you.  We will each post once a month on a Friday in a regular rotation.  When we begin again in early October, I will introduce you to each of them — I’m sure you will recognize some of them.  I am trying to learn how to migrate subscribers to the new blog which will be titled Savoring the Southwest.)

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‘Want more recipes for traditional foods and  edible wild desert plants?  You’ll find lots of great ideas in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  You’ll learn how professional chefs incorporate traditional Southwest ingredients into their menus in The New Southwest Cookbook. Ask your local bookstore to order for you or follow the links to order on-line.

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Turn Prickly Pear into a Cooling Dessert

Juicy prickly pear fruit

Juicy prickly pear fruit

When you can still find big juicy prickly pears, it’s time to try some recipies using the flesh of the fruit. Later when the season has passed we can still cook with prickly pear, but we’ll be using syrup we’ve made and juice we have frozen.

I’m going to tell you how to make a light and luscious summer dessert called Prickly Pear Blanc-Manger.  Pronounced  blah-mahn-jhay, it is one of the oldest sweets we know, possibly dating from Roman times.

You will need a cupful of prickly pear fruit chunk,s but preparing them is a sort of fussy job.  First agenda item: pull on your  heavy-ish rubber gloves and locate the tweezers. Rinse the fruit to wash off any dust.  Then, handling each fruit as gingerly as possible, use a sharp knife to cut off the blossom end.  Peel from there to the stem end. Then cut each fruit in half and carefully scoop out the seeds. Cut what’s left into about four pieces. Repeat until you have a cup full.

Peel and cut the prickly pear fruit.

Peel and cut the prickly pear fruit. Here are the four stages in the preparation.

This dessert is basically milk and cream, firmed up with gelatin,given a little heft with ground almonds and flavored with prickly pear fruit and seasonal berries.  First I’ll show you some photos, then give the recipe.

Get your prickly pear pieces and ground almonds ready first.

Get your prickly pear pieces and ground almonds ready first.

After the cream is whipped, gently  fold in the prickly pear pieces.

After the cream is whipped, gently fold in the prickly pear pieces.

Turn the mixture into a mold or even an 8-inch cake pan.

Turn the mixture into a mold or even an 8-inch cake pan.

Unmold and decorate with fresh berries.

Unmold and decorate with fresh berries.

Intrigued?  Ready for a little bit of a challenge?  Here’s the recipe:

1 ½ cups heavy cream, chilled

¾ cup whole milk, chilled

3 tablespoons ground almonds

½ cup sugar

1 envelope powdered gelatin

½ teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup small (1/4 to 1/2  inch) prickly pear pieces

1 cup of fresh berries

Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and cold water.  Have ready a smaller bowl that fits into the ice-water bath. Whip cream until it holds soft peaks. Refrigerate.

Bring milk, almonds and sugar to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make certain the sugar dissolves.While milk heats, put gelatin and three tablespoons cold water in a microwave safe bowl or small pan  When the gelatin is soft and spongy – around two minutes – heat it in the microwave for 15 seconds. If using a saucepan, cook it over low heat to dissolve. Stir the gelatin into the hot milk mixture and remove pan from heat.

Pour the hot almond milk into the small reserved bowl and set the bowl into the ice-water bath. Stir in almond extract and vanilla extract and continue to stir until the mixlture is cool but still liquid. You don’t want the milk to gel in the bowl.

Retrieve the whipped cream from the refrigerator and gently fold it into the almond milk with a spatula, then fold in the prickly pear pieces. Spoon the mixture into the 8-inch cake pan or the mold and refrigerate until set, about two hours.To make ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to a day.

To easily unmold, put mold upside down over a plate. Dampen a kitchen towel with very hot water and put over the top of the mold until the blanc manger slides out.

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Want more recipes for prickly pear and other edible wild desert plants?  You’ll find lots of great ideas in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Ask your local bookstore to order for you or follow the links to order on-line.

Purslane: Summer’s Healthy Gift

Big bunch of verdolagas

Big bunch of verdolagas

By this time in the Arizona monsoon season, flower gardens and other empty spaces should be full of juicy purslane, also called verdolagas. It has small fleshly leaves about the size of a fingernail, pinkish stems, and grows close to the ground.  I have only a small patch this year next to an irrigation emitter because it simply has not rained yet in our part of downtown Tucson. The cactus are pitifully shrivelled and the ground is weedless. The picture above is from last year.

Purslane can be eaten raw, chopped in salads or sautéed .  In addition to all the vitamin C, calcium, and iron, purslane also has the most omega-3 fatty acids of any green. This is an important nutrient as our modern diets do not provide enough of it.   Certain fibers also help in controlling blood sugar.  Since it’s free and (usually) abundant, why not try some?

My friend Roni Rivera-Ashford taught me to put a bowl under the colander and catch the water you use to rinse the purslane. You will find lots of very tiny black seeds in the water.  Pour that water with the seeds on a potted plant and you’ll have purslane next year.

To prepare the purslane, first chop and sauté  some onion and garlic in a little oil.  I have I’Itoi onions left in my fridge from spring. Somehow they “know” it is time to be planted so they are beginning to sprout so I used some of those.

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Next add the chopped purslane.

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The classic next addition is chopped tomatoes.  My advisor on Mexican food is my water aerobics buddy Elda Islas. She cooked for a houseful of sons when they were growing up and now delights grandchildren with her authentic Mexican food.  She’s also pretty laid back.  When I asked what else to add, she said, “Anything you want!”  She added, “Sometimes I just clean out the refrigerator.”  Taking her cue, I also added fresh corn and sautéed  chicken pieces.

Add chopped tomatoes...

Add chopped tomatoes…

 ... and chicken if you'd like.

… and chicken if you’d like.

The mixture tasted a little bland to me, so I added a tablespoon of Santa Cruz Chili Paste.  That is a staple in my refrigerator.

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Elda’s suggestion for cheese topping is also forgiving:  “Whatever you have.” I have some nice organic white cheddar so that is what you see on these purslane tacos.

The finished purslane tacos.

The finished purslane tacos.

If you have a favorite way to use purslane, please share with the rest of us.

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*I will be at the Second Annual Prickly Pear Festival in Superior this Saturday demonstratiing Prickly Pear Onion Jam.  This event was rollicking last year and promises to be even better this year.

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If you are interested in more recipes for desert plants, take a look at my books Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants and The Prickly Pear Cookbook.   The New Southwest Cookbook contains recipes from talented restaurant and resort chefs throughout the Southwest using traditional ingredients in new and delicious ways.

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.

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.