Tag Archives: wild foods

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.


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.)


“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.

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.

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!

Tepary Beans – Perfect for the Cold


When the weather grows cold, as it has been in Arizona lately, a nice pot of beans sounds good. A good choice for beans is the native bean of the area, teparies. Teparies originally grew wild, but many generations ago the Tohono O’odham people domesticated them and grew them with the monsoon rains. They had many natural color variations, but when irrigation made possible the growing of pinto beans, farmers switched to the new crop and many of these varieties were lost.

Why are teparies important in the bean world? They rank slightly higher in protein and niacin and quite a lot higher in calcium. They also have a low glycemic index, which protects people eating them from a dangerously rapid rise in blood glucose levels.  Today, interest in teparies is increasing and the market for them is growing as people learn of their sweet flavor and health aspects.

Ramona Sepia

Ramona Button and her husband of Ramona Farms south of Phoenix are growing teparies as well as other agricultural products.  I’ll let her tell her own story:

” My father, Francisco “Chiigo” Smith, an O’odham farmer, grew many traditional crops on my mother Margarita’s 10-acre allotment located near Sacaton on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona.  My mother was an herbalist and traditional healer. Together they taught me the value of our traditional foods as being important to our daily nutrition and way of life.

My husband, Terry, and I began farming on that very same allotment in 1974.  Our first crops were barley and alfalfa.  After expanding a few years later by leasing land from my relatives and other community members, we added cotton, corn and wheat.

In the late 1970s, some community elders asked us to grow the Bafv (tepary bean), which had nearly become extinct. We discovered that my father had left a few seeds of the white and brown tepary beans in glass jars in a trunk in the old adobe house that I grew up in.  It became clear to us, especially with the urging of our community elders, that it was to become our mission to help bring the bafv back to the community.

 We now offer tepary beans in different colors and multiple package sizes.  We are also offering other wholesome American Indian grown traditional heirloom and non-traditional food products.” 

You can learn more about Ramona Farms on their website.   You can also taste some of Ramona’s delicious beans in traditional recipes this Saturday at the Heard Museum in Phoenix from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  I’ll be appearing with Ramona and her helper Leslie and I’ll be offering some modern dishes using teparies — I’m considering tepary vegetarian pate and tepary brownies.  We’d love to talk to you and offer you some delicious tastes.

You can find these recipes and more in my latest cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  The Heard Museum bookstore will have copies for sale or you can get a copy at your local independent bookstore or on-line.

Kids Help Kids Learn About Native Plants

Nate Whitthorne demonstrates mesquite grinding on metate to elementary students

Nate Whitthorne demonstrates mesquite grinding on metate to Ventana Vista elementary students.

I was in junior high when I first picked prickly pears with my parents and in my mid-twenties when I joined in the hippie-era enthusiam for learning about wild plants and trying to live off the land.  All of us from that time are getting a bit gray now, so it was with great excitement that I learned that Nate Whitthorne and his younger brother Sam were not only learning about native uses for wild plants, but also teaching what they know to younger children.

Nate and Sam live with their parents Elizabeth and Perry on a beautiful piece of Sonoran Desert on Tucson’s far east side. Right outside their back door are mesquite and palo verde trees, barrel, cholla and saguaro cactus, and even a wolfberry bush.  Their mom and dad originally learned about native plants from a class at the Desert Museum. They also bought my book American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest on native uses of desert plants  and tried some of the old-time recipes they found there.

Sam and Nate Whitthorne in their desert backyard.

Sam and Nate Whitthorne in their desert backyard.

In October, Nate and Sam took their knowledge on the road as they represented Tucson Botanical Gardens at the Ventana Vista Elementary School Plant Science Family Night.  Inspired by the Botanical Gardens Native Plants-Native Peoples curriculum, they showed the younger children how to grind mesquite pods on a metate, how to make fiber from agave leaves, and how to dye cloth with crushed cochineal beetles from prickly pear cactus.

Pounding agave to make fiber.

Pounding agave to make fiber.

native foods display

No one expect folks living in the 21st century to exist on wild foods — there are too many of us and it’s not the way we eat today.  And yet Nate and Sam understand that helping younger students learn  what fruits and pods are edible and the other uses of desert plants helps them appreciate the history of the people who lived here before us. Understanding the hidden wealth of the desert  helps all of us feel more connected to our environment.  By seeing not just thorns and stickers when we look at desert plants, but also delicious food and fiber and dye, we look at the desert landscape as something precious to be protected rather than bladed to make way for another shopping center or housing development.  How exciting that that the next generation is getting as much pleasure from learning about desert plants as we did when we were young.

Want more ideas for using desert plants in delicious foods?  Check out my books The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.