Tag Archives: Southwest foods

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.)


‘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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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. )


Mesquite Log Cake for a Birthday

Mesquite Log Cake

Mesquite Log Cake

While we wait for spring and little green things to pop up on the desert, we can turn, like our foremothers, to our stored foods.  For me, that is me that is the mesquite meal that I had ground by the Desert Harvesters big hammermills last fall. When a friend was going to celebrate her birthday dinner at my home, a mesquite log cake seemed like the perfect thing.  It is one of the recipes that I repeated in Cooking the Wild Southwest from the earlier out-of-print Tumbleweed Gourmet because it is just so darned delicious.  It’s easy to make, but the first time you read the directions, you might think “this can’t be right.”  So I made a series of photos to demonstrate.

First, line an 11-by-17-inch jellyroll pan with foil. In a small saucepan or bowl in the microwave, melt 1/4 cup butter and spread evenly over the foil. Spread one can sweentend condense milk on top. Like this:

Butter and sweetened  condensed mil.

Butter and sweetened condensed milk.

Next, evenly sprinkle 1 1/2 cups of flaked or shredded coconut and 1 cup chopped nuts on top.

Layered butter, milk, coconut and nuts.

Layered butter, milk, coconut and nuts.

In a blender beat 3 eggs at high speed.  When frothy, add 1 cup sugar, 1/3 cup mesquite meal, 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon baking sodea, 1/3 cup water,  and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.  Blend and pour on top of the coconut mixture.

Pour batter on topping and spread evenly.

Pour batter on topping and spread evenly.

Bake in preheated 375 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Watch carefully so the corners don’t get overbaked.

IMG_0449While the cake is baking, spread a clean, nonterrycloth dish towel on a flat surface and sprinkle with 1/4 cup powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon cocoa or carob as at left.






Tip cake onto the tea towel so cake is on bottom.

Tip cake onto the tea towel so cake is on bottom and the coconut is on top.

When the cake is done, invert it onto the tea towel, and using the towel, begin to roll it. Do this right away before it cools.





Roll into a cylinder

Roll into a cylinder

Cut into two on a slant

Cut into two on a slant


Happy birthday!

Frost with chocolate frosting swirling it to look like mesquite bark.  Decorate with mesquite leaves. If it is a birthday, add candles and singing.  Interested in more mesquite recipes?  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. 

Food Heritage in Santa Cruz Valley

Today’s post is from Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, which was formed 10 years ago to connect people to the rich cultural and natural heritage of the region by working towards recognition of the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area. Since inception, the Heritage Alliance has created a successful heritage tourism program and a popular heritage foods program. The aim is to increase community awareness of the region’s food traditions and agricultural heritage. Vanessa’s post highlights the heritage foods of the Santa Cruz River Valley which runs from the Arizona/Sonora border to north of Tucson.

Vanessa Bechtol

Vanessa Bechtol


By Vanessa Bechtol, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

The Santa Cruz Valley is perhaps the longest continually cultivated region on the United States, with an agricultural heritage extending back more than 4,000 years.  This agriculture heritage can still be experienced today through the local foods, farm products and livestock grown throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Through our Heritage Foods Program, the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance partners with other local organizations and businesses to increase community awareness of the region’s rich agricultural heritage and food traditions.       

Several traditional Native American foods are cultivated or gathered in the Santa Cruz Valley.  Chiltepin, the wild chile plant that is the ancestor of domesticated chile varieties, grows wild in the canyons near Tumacácori and is cultivated as a fiery condiment.  Other native crops include tepary beans, several types of squashes, a fast-growing, drought-resistant variety of corn, and “devil’s claw,” the fibers of which are used to make baskets.  Wild plant foods gathered from the desert include seed pods of mesquite trees, wild greens, and cactus fruits, buds, and pads.

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Extensive orchards near Green Valley are the leading source of pecans in Arizona.  Red and white wines are made and bottled by several wineries in Sonoita and Elgin, where the climate and soils match those of Mediterranean countries.  Among the varieties grown in local vineyards is the Mission grape, introduced during the Spanish period.  The region also produces a unique dark honey made from the nectars of mesquite blossoms and native wildflowers.  Jellies, syrups, and candies made from cactus fruits are popular with tourists throughout Arizona.

Figs, apples, pomegranates, quinces, grapes, and other fruit stocks introduced during the Spanish period continue to be grown in private gardens and orchards throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Both Tumacacori National Historical Park and the Mission Garden in Tucson have re-established historic orchards with this fruits.

Cattle ranching is the major rural land use in the Santa Cruz Valley. While most ranches raise cattle to ship to feedlots in other states, many local ranches butcher their own beef.  Grass-fed, natural beef (raised on native forage, and using no hormones or antibiotics) is increasing in importance and popularity.  Some conservation breeders raise the Wilbur-Cruce Mission strain of colonial Spanish horses, called Spanish Barbs, descended from horses introduced to region by missionaries and ranchers during the late 1600s.   – VB

A Chance to Participate

For those of you living in Tucson or nearby, Tom Sheridan, author of “Arizona: A History” kicks off the Heritage Speaker Series with a history of the Santa Cruz Valley. Bring your own lunch to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. and join in on January 29 from noon to 1 p.m.  Read more here.

White Sonora Wheat: A Heritage Grains Workshop for Arizona Bakers and Brewers.

If you are a baker, brewer, pastry chef, tortilla maker, or other food enthusiast and are interested in learning about the culinary characteristics of white Sonora wheat during a free 2-hour workshop, please email Vanessa@santacruzheritage.org for workshop details.


Interesting in trying these desert foods?  Find delicious and easy recipes for 23 edible desert plants in my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  For all things prickly pear, both fruit and pads, check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  I teach you what to look for, when to harvest, and how to prepare and serve. Yum!