Monthly Archives: April 2014

Enjoy Beans with Epazote

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides_08_by H ZellEpazote (formerly Chenopodium ambrosoides, now renamed Dysphania ambrosioides) came to our area from Mayan lands. The name is the same in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English. Who says you are not multilingual?!

Epazote is a summer annual herb popular for culinary and medicinal uses. By the time of Contact, epazote had been cultivated for well over a thousand years in southern and southeast coastal Mexico. It was, and still is, a principle flavoring for a large number of Yucatan and Veracruz dishes, and is indispensable for cooking black beans.

Chenopodium Dysphania ambrosioides by iamtexture

Epazote, like the Old World herbs of cumin and ginger, has the unique ability to help break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins. These difficult proteins are found most often in beans, peas, and members of the cabbage family. A few leaves of epazote cooked in the pot with the potential offender help break down these offending proteins while alo providing a delightfully piquant flavor to the dish.

This strongly scented herb is reported as a deer repellent. I can report that javalina, jackrabbits, cottontails and quail all avoid eating the plants. Medicinally, epazote has been used in an infusion as a vermifuge (against intestinal parasites), and in a decoction to help induce labor. These uses lead to one of it’s common names, wormseed.

Chenopodium Dysphania_ambrosioides_9061 by t voekler

Planting and Care. Plant epazote from seed in spring once night temperatures rise above the low 50’s. Seeds can take as long as four weeks to germinate. Plants will thrive through the warm season and freeze to the ground at 35 degrees, but often regrow from the roots.

Seed Sources. Check the Pima County Seed Library.  No need to drive there, go online to check for seed availability then reserve some sent to your local branch.  I have also found seed through Renee’s Garden Seed and Botanical Interests.

Soil. Epazote tolerates poor, even clay soil, but plants grow best in average, well-drained soil. Can be grown in containers that are at least eight  inches deep.

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides  by S Doronenko

Location. Full sun is ok in the Southwest, but afternoon shade is appreciated by this tropical herb.

Water. Moderate.

Fertilize. Not necessary, but once a month with general purpose fertilizer will help make bushy plants. To really keep the plants bushy, you will need to pinch often. This is a technical term, really! (see “Care”).

Habit & Care. Epazote can reach 5 feet, but will be scraggly. Pinch or clip off the growing tips often to keep it around 2 to 3 feet tall, compact, leafy, and looking attractive in the garden. Usually a single plant provides enough for the household. Epazote reseeds readily, remove the flowering stalks, or be ready to weed excess plants next year. Seed heads turn an attractive bronze in autumn, and finches enjoy the seeds.


Harvest and Use. Epazote is used fresh for culinary purposes, and loses “digestive” properties when dried. Chop or mince leaves and add early to dishes that require long cooking, like beans, roasts, soups, or stews. Use one tablespoon minced leaves per cup of beans or to a two pound roast. Not used as a garnish, due to bitter taste. If you want to save epazote for winter use, chop up fresh leaves and freeze them.

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides_courtesy of UDSA_01

Go Green. Use epazote to avoid using manufactured bean-digestive compounds. Having the plants in your yard saves packaging, shipping, and all the associated waste of resources inherent in manufactured goods. Even greener, epazote plants provide food for birds, a way to capture carbon, plus a lovely low green plant for your yard.

This article is exerpeted from my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15). I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery. You can visit my booth at the Arizona Feeds Country Store Spring Expo, Sat. May 3 (10-3), 4743 N. Highway Dr.

Categories: Cooking, Gardening, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Edible Flowers of Spring

Ocotillo blossoms

Ocotillo blossoms

It’s Carolyn today. Two months ago Tia Marta wrote about gathering and preparing delicious cholla buds, but that is only the barest beginning of the edible flowers that can add fun and interest to our meals. Spring is the best time to find the biggest bounty of  beautiful munchibles.  Gather a bowlful of ocotillo blossoms, add water, and let it stand overnight. You’ll have a delicate juice. The flowers must be open for the nectar to leach into the water.  I wrote about the early Native American uses to ocotillo as a medicinal herb in American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. 

Ford at Empire 015

Blossoms on elderberry bush.

This is also the season for elderberry bushes to flower.  Sometimes called elderblow, the flowers make delicious fritters.  I have given full directions in my earlier blog Carolyn’s Southwest Kitchen and you can see it here.

Moving from the desert to your own garden, you’ll find many edible flowers. Many of them make delicious additions to salads.  Among them are nasturtium flowers, which have bright, peppery flavor.

Two colors of nasturtium flowers on a fresh garden salad.

Two colors of nasturtium flowers on a  garden salad.

Arugula tends to bolt early and especially did so on this very hot spring on the Sonoron Desert.  But the flowers, though small, taste lovely, not quite as intense as the the leaves.

Arugula flowers

Arugula flowers


Other delicious salad additions are pansies and violas, their smaller cousins.



When I began gathering material for this post, I recalled a dish I made  years ago that involved sauteeing chicken with cinnamon and rose water and then finishing the dish with a sprinkle of small rose and marigold petals.  My friend Suzann and I served that at a wedding we catered for two naturalists.



Teacup rose

Teacup rose


Dried edible flowers make wonderful and healthy teas. Tina Bartsch at Walking J Farm grows and dries calendula flowers for John Slattery  at Desert Tortoise Botanicals who uses them as one ingredient in his Desert Flower Tea. He combines them with desert willow flowers, ocotillo flowers, hollyhock flowers, and prickly pear flowers.  His website says that the tea is an anti-oxidant and good for tissue repair.  The tea is available at Native Seeds Search,  Tucson Community Acupuncture,  the Food Conspiracy. Calendula petals taste  tangy and peppery and add a golden hue to food. Calendula has been called “the poor man’s saffron.”

Calendula flowers drying

Calendula flowers drying


Desert Flower Tea

Desert Flower Tea


One of the most used flowers in cooking, particularly in Mexico, is the squash flower.  The male flowers will never develop into squash, so you can harvest some of them. When I was in Oaxaca a few summers ago, I took a cooking class from Chef Oscar Crespo and just had the best time.  One of the things we cooked was stuffed squash blossoms.  Here is the recipe.

Squash blossoms

Squash blossoms

Cheese-filled Squash Flower Blossoms


12 squash flower blossoms, washed

½ cup (2.5 oz/80 g) fresh cheese, sliced into sticks

12 epazote leaves (optional)

1 cup all-purpose  flour

3/4 cup club soda

Oil for frying


Slice the cheese so that it fits in the blossoms. Remove the sepals and pistils (that’s the parts inside the petals), then cut the stem to 1¼ in . Fill the whole blossom with a slice of cheese and an epazote leaf. Push the cheese all the way in, and twist the petals to close.

Make a batter with the flour and club soda, starting with 1/2 cup of the club soda. Add more if necessary to make a thin batter like pancake batter.

Place the oil in a frying pan and bring to high heat, about 350 degrees. Dip the stuffed blossoms in the flour mixture. Fry them for 2 minutes or until golden brown, turning at least once. Remove from the oil and drain on absorbent paper.

These can be served accompanied with a red or green salsa or floated in a tomato  broth.

For more ideas on cooking squash blossoms, check here.  If you want more information on edible flowers, you can click here and here.


Carolyn Niethammer writes books on the food and people of the Southwest.


Categories: Cooking, Gardening, Sonoran Medicinal, Southwest Food, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Praise of Seeds and Rebirth

Scarlet runner beans grown by ace gardener T.S.Swain–good nutrition and beauty besides (MABurgess photo)

Tia Marta here this beautiful Easter week, singing the praises of seeds, with stories of rebirth to share! When I hold seeds in my hand, I am blown away by their significance. These little lightweight packages of starch and protein, exine skins and genetic chains, are weighty with potential for what they can do in the future, and truly weighty with messages from the past—genetic wisdom selected by the many forces of Nature through time, and in the case of agricultural seed, by caring humans—all encased in a holding pattern, a portal where time stretches. Seeds are life in abeyance. Each seed is a nexus, connecting the ways of the past with hopes for the future. To see life spring again from a seed is a miracle every time it happens—even for elders who have seen it happen a zillion times, and one worth sharing with children for their first.

native chia (Salvia columbariae) in bloom at Mission Garden (MABurgess)

wild native chia seedheads (Salvia columbariae) ready to winnow (MABurgess photo)

wild native chia seedheads (Salvia columbariae) ready to winnow (MABurgess photo)

All of life celebrates spring re-energizing time with Nature’s renewal, Easter’s message of life out of death. In the Sonoran Desert we are celebrating not only new growth but also nourishment with the spring harvest, the results of winter rains. Here, our winter ephemerals (a totally different suite of plants than our hot-weather annuals) are completing their blooming and pollination cycles, their seedheads bulging and ready to be scattered, shattered, caught by wind, coyote legs, or human socks, to be spread to the next possible patch of desert soil in prep for this fall’s rainy season (or for feeding furry or feathered desert dwellers.) Chia seedheads will soon be ready to gather and winnow for their superfood nutrition. Don’t forget to thank the plant (and all the forces which brought those chia seeds to fruition) as you chow down on its high omega-3 fatty acids and its blood-sugar-balancing complex carbs in your smoothie or chia fruit salad!


Heirloom barley in flower at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

Heirloom barley in flower at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

Heirloom White Sonoran Wheat seedheads filling out at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

Heirloom White Sonoran Wheat seedheads filling out at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

It is written that Passover (the roots of which began in a desert akin to our own with winter rainfall and grains grown as winter crops) cannot be celebrated until the barley is harvested. When Father Kino and other Padres brought Old World grains like wheat and barley to our corner of the Southwest, the same winter growing was observed. Now, at the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace Mission Garden (at the foot of A-Mountain) direct descendants of those original heirloom grains are topping out where you can see them “in action” any Saturday for a tour (see

Heirloom White Sonoran Wheat berries, local, organic, traditional, from BKWFarms (MABurgess photo)

Heirloom White Sonoran Wheat berries, local, organic, traditional, from BKWFarms (MABurgess photo)

Scroll thru our savorthesouthwest posts to check out Tia Marta’s January blog for some enjoyable insights on the ancient White Sonoran Wheat and great recipe ideas, and a nutshell history –introduced by Kino, found again by Native Seeds/SEARCH, and now being grown with soil-enriching organic methods by the Wong Family in Marana.

Wheat is rich with symbolism as well as nutrition—full of life-giving energy, complex carbohydrates when the whole grain is eaten, and good protein. Irish farmers weave complex seedhead sculptures and hangings for good luck, representing protection, provender, and plenty. For traditional Italians especially, wheat symbolizes renewal and rebirth and has become an important Easter food.

Tucson Foodie-par-excellence Vanda Gerhardt located a most marvelous recipe for an Italian traditional Easter pie ( made with wholesome wheat grain. She has served samples to delighted farmers market visitors at the Flor de Mayo booth at St Phillips Sunday market (  With her inspiration I have modified it for a totally local treat, made with our own Padre Kino White Sonoran Wheat berries from BKWFarms!

Luscious Easter Wheatberry pie, from

Luscious Easter Wheatberry pie, from

Here’s my version of this yummy custard Pastiera di Grano dessert for you to enjoy with its Sonoran Desert name:

Heirloom Wheat Berry Pie—Postre de TrigoEntero–Pastel Pascual de la Pimeria Alta!

Ingredients for pre-cooking wheat berries:
1 cup whole grain heirloom White Sonoran Wheat Berries (available from NSS or Flor de Mayo)
5 cups drinking water
2-4 narrow strips lemon peel, orange or tangerine peel
Pinch salt optional
Instructions for cooking wheat:
Rinse white Sonoran Wheat berries to remove chaff. (Overnight soak optional.)
In saucepan, bring to boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer an hour, then check doneness. Berries are best when they are al dente but done through. Allow more simmer time if need be.
[After wheat berries are cooked you can use them for many different delicious recipes.]

Sweet Pie Crust (Pasta Frolla)
(You can make this and the filling while your wheat berries are simmering!)
Ingredients for pie crust:
1 2/3 cups White Sonoran Wheat pastry flour or 00 (available from NSS, HaydenFlourMills)
1/3 cup organic sugar, OR ¼ cup sugar and 1 T mesquite pod flour
1 tsp lemon or orange zest (optional)
½ cup butter chilled and diced
1 large egg lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt (if unsalted butter)
Instructions for pie crust:
Combine flour, sugar, zest, and salt. Mix thoroughly (in food processor if available). Cut in butter until breadcrumb texture. Whisk in wet ingredients—egg and vanilla. If needed (as in dry climates) add 1-3 T of ice water and mix. Form mixture into a ball, wrap in plastic and chill at least an hour.

Ingredients for Pastry Cream Filling:
2 T organic sugar
1 T White Sonoran Wheat flour
½ cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
Pinch of salt
Instructions for Pastry Cream:
Sift sugar, flour, salt together into saucepan. Whisk in egg and milk. Mix well. Cook on low heat stirring constantly until it boils and thickens (approx. 3 minutes). Place in bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly on top of cream mixture eliminating all air bubbles, and set in frig to chill.

Ingredients for Ricotta Cheese Filling:
1 cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup organic sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup finely chopped orange or tangerine peel candied (optional)
1 tsp orange flower water or rose water
½ tsp cinnamon
Instructions for making Ricotta Filling:
Preheat oven to 350 degreesF
In mixing bowl beat ricotta until creamy. Mix in sugar and eggs. Fold in candied citrus peel, flower water, and cinnamon. Next fold in the refrigerated pastry cream and 1 cup of the cooked White Sonoran Wheat berries. Mixture should feel thick.

Final steps–Cooking Wheat berry Custard Pie:
Roll out 2/3 of the pastry dough and spread on floor of 9-inch pie dish. Pour in the cream/ricotta/wheatberry mixture. For creating lattice top on pie, roll out remaining 1/3 dough. Cut in strips about ½ inch wide and place atop pie filling.
For a glistening egg wash, whisk 1 egg and pinch of salt and brush the pastry lattice.
Bake 50-60 minutes or until top and crust edges are golden brown and the custard filling is firm in the middle. Test with cake tester or toothpick in pie center. Cook additional minutes until tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Best chilled for a few hours before serving.
Buon Appotito –y buen provecho!

Note: you can find organic White Sonoran Wheat Berries at Native Seeds/SEARCH store or online, also at Flor de Mayo’s booth at Sunday St Phillips Farmers’ Market, Tucson, or 520-907-9471. Orange blossom water is available at Mid-Eastern groceries.


Staghorn cholla bud about to open, with ants enjoying extra-floral nectaries (MABurgess photo)

Staghorn cholla bud about to open, with ants enjoying extra-floral nectaries (MABurgess photo)


Wheatberry salad with cholla buds--an April delight (MABurgess photo)

Wheatberry salad with cholla buds–an April delight (MABurgess photo)

With cholla bud season in full swing, it’s a great time to make a marinated wheatberry and cholla bud salad for a refreshingly cool hot-weather dish. Marinate cooked wheatberries in your favorite dressing, chop fresh veggies and add cooked cholla buds—and voila you have flavor, fun, and nutrition!

Giant Aztec white runner-beans, aka bordal and "mortgage lifter" (MABurgessphoto)

Giant Aztec white runner-beans, aka bordal and “mortgage lifter” (MABurgessphoto)

With the sap rising, and the gardening bug tugging at you, now is the perfect time to sew seeds of two very special long-season beans—the Tarahumara scarlet runner (see top of post) and the Aztec white runner (available at   (Note: white runners looking like small Easter eggs are also referred to as “bordal” and, similar to the tomato by the same name, “mortgage lifter.”  If you can baby your young plants thru the heat and drought of May and June into monsoon growth, both of these beans will give you not only great food next fall but also glorious ornamental vines until then. Trellis them on the east side of your house or a wall for eastern light and protection from the blasting western sun. Hummingbirds will love you as they visit both the brilliant scarlet flowers and even the white flowers.

May your garden and your table be blessed with the fruits of the desert, bringing rebirth of good nutrition to the land and to our greater community of creatures and cultures!

Categories: Cooking, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Java Chickens, the Egg Tooth, and Very Simple Poached Eggs


Aunt Linda here:  Mother hens are keeping their hatchlings close this cool Tucson morning. As it warms up, they will give vigorous lessons in scratching and foraging. While most hens will teach their young the skills they need to survive, the heirloom Java breed is especially good at parenting. This breed is known not only for being excellent parents, but robust foragers – and are able to tolerate heat well.  The second oldest variety of chicken in the U.S, they are a wonderful heirloom breed for the desert southwest.One Java rooster that I raised will wait to eat until all his hens and chicks are well into their meal. He watches attentively, and only once he is satisfied that all are well fed, will he begin his own feasting.  So strong is their parental instinct, ( they are the one breed in my flock that can I count on to “go broody” each year), that I in a pinch, I have been able to use Java hens to hatch duck and turkey eggs, when no mother of those species had been available or willing. (Note: I am emphasizing the parental strengths of the Java here;  there can be unexpected adventures (read complications), so query someone with experience before you undertake this. It is just one of those creative pieces of animal husbandry that are sometimes necessary, but not necessarily the ideal. It is much like using a goat to nurse a baby calf whose mother has died; just because one can do it does not mean that you should when a perfectly good mama cow is around; whenever possible go for the technology that nature selected).


(above – Java hatchlings on left with an turkey egg beginning to hatch in front; the timing needs to be right for this)


(above – the baby turkey from the egg in the photo above this photo, resting its wing on a Java egg yet to hatch)

I could wax on and on about Java Chickens all day, but really would like to focus on a hatching chick’s greatest tool: The Egg Tooth.  It is a small, sturdy protuberance attached to the upper mandible of a hatching bird’s (or reptile’s) beak (or bill) that helps it break through the shell. I am captivated by this practical, ancient, tool.


(above – a newly hatched Java Chick, with the “hatched-from- egg-shell”  in front. Note the white tip on it’s beak. That is it’s egg tooth)

So, the Egg Tooth.  In addition to being a very practical tool of evolution, I would consider it  also as a kind of “a state of mind”, as well.  Or, perhaps as a practical metaphor. Or an evolutionary tool in our own lives. What fortifies us enough that we are able to “break through” to the ideas/behaviors we have been incubating, so that they come to fruition?  The answer(s), vary from person to person.  Querying ourselves alone may help us break through to “the larger world”, to a more expansive sense of self, or to seeing something in a whole new light.


After all that hatching and breaking through you might be hungry. And for something simple and nutritious. Here is today’s recipe:  Very Simple Poached Eggs

Ingredients: 2 Organic Eggs.                Then: pasture raised butter (or olive oil), salt, (optional: chiltepin) for flavor.

How: You really do not need a fancy poacher to make a great poached egg. The key is in using really fresh eggs.In fact, the addition of vinegar that we so often hear about is really for eggs that are not so fresh; like the kind from the grocery store. If you have access to a neighbors hens, or a local farmers market, you can proceed as follows. Crack an egg into a small bowl. In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil, reduce the heat, with a spoon swirl the water into a tiny whirlpool, and gently slip the egg into the center of the swirl. Keep water just below boiling – cook until the white is set and to your preference of yolk. Add the butter (I use pasture raised butter), salt, and (optional dried red chiltepin crushed on top) to taste. Savor the taste of that fresh egg without much fancy coverup or fanfare.

I love these atop beans, or on a fresh tortilla/bread.

Worthy of Note: There is so much to say about the joys and benefits of raising heirloom breeds; about their dispositions and superior nutritional value. I am a part of a Java Recovery Project, to increase their numbers. Many heirloom animals are endangered and if it appeals to you to steward an heirloom breed of some sort, I encourage you to visit:  The website is a goldmine of information and you can educate yourself on the types of breeds, where they thrive, which are especially in need of breeders, as well about the nutritional needs of heritage breeds. Who knows!? You might use your metaphorical egg tooth in the service of something larger than your own life. Perhaps to be in service to the earth, (from whom both the egg tooth and we humans emerged), and consider learning about/raising heirloom breeds of some sort yourself.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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