Every year in late April and early May, Tucson residents and visitors celebrate the agave plant in all its glory with dinners, cocktail demos, mescal and bacanora tastings, demonstrations and fiestas. It’s Carolyn today and for the third year, I’ve taken part in the agave roasting at Mission Garden. The agave plant is a succulent that thrives in arid conditions and when roasted becomes very sweet. It is the defining ingredient in mescal and tequila. It has also been used for thousands of years by the Native Americans as food. The Hohokam even planted agave fields stretching over 1,200 acres in the north end of the Santa Cruz basin. It was a crop that needed little tending and propagated on it’s own by sending out pups. Anthroplogist Suzanne Fish estimates that the Hohokam in the area could have harvested up to 10,000 agave plants annually.
Historically, the stiff and thorny leaves were cut from the agave and the hearts are baked in an earth oven. The people just chewed the pulp from the fibers. Then there was a step up in technology when the hearts were steamed and roasted, crushed and used to make tequila, mescal and bacanora. Here is a link to a demonstration of a old-fashioned bacanora “factory” in Mexico. Of course, today the big commercial mescal and tequila makers use industrial ovens.
But during Agave Fest, we like to celebrate the oldest traditions, so Jesus Garcia demonstrates baking agave in an earth oven.
Because we don’t all have earth ovens, I am in charge of the home-baking demonstration. I wrap the hearts securely in heavy foil and bake them for about 10 hours at 350 degrees F. (If you try this, be sure to put a foil-lined pan under the agaves because even the most securely wrapped hearts leak sugary juice.)
The next challenge is to get enough pulp from the fibers to actually make something. The Native Americans just chewed on the baked leaves and discarded the fibers. Distillers and people who make agave syrup crush the juice from the fibers. To further soften the leaves, I tried boiling them for a while. I also put them in my food processor which did a good job of separating fiber from pulp.
You can also tease out the pulp with a knife.
(We are all constantly experimenting to try to find what works best. A woman who attended my presentation said she has cut up a small agave heart and cooked it in her large slow cooker for three days.)
So once you’ve gone to the trouble of getting pulp, what do you do with it? Here’s where the experimenting comes in. I’ve combined it with water to make a murky homemade agave syrup. You can use it to season anything you want to sweeten a little. For the Agave Fest demonstrations, I’ve made a mixed squash, nopalito, and onion saute and added some of the agave pulp. It adds a subtle sweetness and everybody loves it. I also used the pulp to mix with some ground popped amaranth and ground chia. Added a little commercial agave syrup. Formed little balls, firmed up in the fridge, then dipped in melted chocolate. Yum!
Of course, by the time I served the food, it was nearing 7:30 or 8 p.m. and everybody was starved so it all tasted especially good!
Want to learn more about wild desert foods and how to prepare them? My book American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest tells how the Native Americans used the wild plants for food. Cooking the Wild Southwest gives modern recipes for 23 delicious Sonoran Desert plants. There are all available at Native Seeds/SEARCH, online or in the retail store.
3 thoughts on “Agave Fest!”
It is so nice that someone is writing about these native plants that are useful for food (although we have different natives here). Almost all that I am familiar with are exotic plants. (That is what was grown here.) I was surprised to learn how little there was to learn about our native blue elderberry. Seriously, I could fine all sorts of information about the Eastern or European black elderberry, but nothing about those that grow wild. I still can not find any information about sugaring the native bigleaf maples. I know it was done farther north. Even though we lack the climate for it, I did it here too. When I was in school, we ate the floral stalks of the native Yucca whipplei like asparagus – really BIG asparagus – but no one else seems to know anything about it.
Thanks for your interest. I’ve written about both the elderberry and yucca flowers in my books. I had an unfortunate experience with raw elderberry juice when I was researching my first book in the early 1970s. It made me terribly ill; cooked is fine. Those lovely white yucca flowers made a great soup; tastes sort of like squash. Haven’t used the stalk.
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Supposedly, the red elderberry it toxic; but I think it is the same sort of toxicity as the blue elderberry, just concentrated. Therefore, if cooked, it is no longer toxic. However, those who use it mention nothing of the toxicity, so I really do not know. Because the also say that the flavor is inferior (and because I have no access to them), it does not matter. I will not be using them anytime soon.