Posts Tagged With: Cooking the Wild Southwest

It’s Saguaro Season

Saguaro flowers and unripe fruit. Photo by Rael B.

Saguaro flowers and unripe fruit. Photo by Rael B.

Our fire has burned and the sun has gone down;

Our fire has burned and the sun has gone down.

Come together, following our ancient custom.

Sing for the liquor,

Delightfully sing.

This was the song that called the people of the Tohono O’odham villages together for the saguaro wine ceremony that followed the  harvest. During the ceremony, they people invoked the intercession of a deity far away in a “rainhouse” full of wind, water and seeds in the hopes of hastening the storms.

This and many other songs were collected and translated by Ruth Murray Underhill, an early anthropologist who lived among what were then called the Papago in 1938. They appear in her book Singing for Power.

When I go saguaro gathering, I get up around 4:30 a.m. and aim to be out among the saguaros just at dawn.  I am always joined by doves and other birds looking for their breakfast. Alone on the desert, I occasionally find myself talking to the saguaros. “So what have you got for me?” I ask. I might worry about my sanity, but I know others have felt the same way. The late desert chronicler Edward Abbey agreed, calling saguaros “planted people.”

Dove getting breakfast

Dove getting breakfast

My harvest

My harvest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The orginal desert dwellers used a dead saguaro rib to push the fruits off the cactus. If you can’t find one, any long pole or a fruit picker will do. You can separate the fruit from the rind in the field or bring it home to clean. Each fruit comes with its own sharp-edged knife, like a natural can opener.

 

Opening a fruit with the calyx on the blossom end.

Opening a fruit with the calyx on the blossom end.

 

Sharp edge of the calyx can be used as a knife.

Sharp edge of the calyx can be used as a knife.

 

Once you have extracted the fruit, you can either dry it whole or separate it into the seeds and juice. This is a simple process. To your pan or bucket, add as much water as you have fruit. Let it sit, covered loosely for six to eight hours. Then plunge your hands in and break up the fruit. Strain off the juice. Boil to concentrate.  If you want to make syrup from the concentrated juice, add half as much sugar as you have juice and boil until clear. Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator. It will usually keep for months.

So what are the options for the seeds. You can put them in any baked good, make pilaf or porridge or cookie filling. But an easy use is homemade crackers. Spread the wet seeds on a cookie sheet in the sun. There will be some white material left from the juice, but either blow it off or ignore it.  I made these crackers in around a half hour. We are accustomed to eating commercial crackers that are very sweet and salty. So if you want a familiar flavor, use the higher amounts of salt and sugar.

Black Beauty Wafers

1/4 cup saguaro seeds

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon salt

1-2 teasp0ons sugar

1/4 cup water

1 tablespooncider vinegar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

8 teaspoons whole saguaro seeds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grind the 1/4 cup saguaro seeds in a blender or coffee grinder. In a large bowl, combine seeds, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add water, vinegar and oil and mix, stirring and kneading until a stiff dough forms.

Shape dough into two rolls, 6 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Then slice each roll into eight wafers.  Sprinkle some seeds on a flat surface, place one disk of dough on it, sprinkle some more seeds on top and roll with a rolling pin as thinly as you can. The thinner the cracker, the crisper they will be.  The shapes will be irregular.

Form dough into log and divide into eight portions.

Form dough into log and divide into eight portions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roll out each portion of dough.

Roll out each portion of dough.

Transfer the crackers to an ungreased nonstick cookie sheet. If you have a regular metal pan, use a sheet of parchment paper. Bake in the preheated oven for just 5 to 7 minutes. Watch closely to ensure they do not burn.

You can serve with soup or salad. Or spread with a soft cheese.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serve your Black Beauty Wafers with a crisp salad.

Serve your Black Beauty Wafers with a crisp salad.

 

And when you eat your saguaro syrup or enjoy your Black Beauty Wafers, remember the words an elderly Tohono O’odham woman said to Ruth Underhill back in 1938:

“To you Whites, Elder brother gave wheat and peaches and grapes. To us, he gave the wild seeds and the cactus. Those are the good foods.”

 

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For more recipes using both saguaro fruit and seeds, consult Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  You can find a copy at Native Seeds SEARCH or order online here.

 

 

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How Nopales Become Nopalitos

Pick prickly pear pads when they are the size of your hand.

Pick new prickly pear pads in the spring when they are the size of your hand.

Carolyn Niethammer with you this week. In our last post,  Martha Burgess wrote about how early cholla buds were appearing this year. I have seen pads beginning to form on the native prickly pear, but not yet on my Ficus Indica, the tall Mexican variety.  But they will be out soon, so let’s talk about how to prepare them for use in salads and casseroles.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

First thing is to don your rubber gloves. Even though these cactus pads don’t have large stickers, they do have the tiny glochids that can be awful to get out of your hands. Then using an old-fashioned steak knife with a serrated edge, go against the grain to scrape off the stickers. Keep a paper towel nearby to clean the knife and keep your working surface clean.

Trim off the edge.

Trim off the edge.

There are an abundance of stickers on the edge of the pad, so just trim it off and discard it.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

At this point you can put the whole, cleaned  nopal on the grill next to  some chicken pieces or pork chops. Or you can chop the pad into smallish pieces. The Chicago restaurant owner, TV star and author Rick Bayless coats the pieces with oil, puts them on a cookie sheet and bakes until done.  You can also do it in a frying pan.  Cook until the color changes to a more olive hue. The slippery substance that is so healthy for your blood will dry up and become less noticeable.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

I watched my friend Amy Valdez Schwemm do a nopal cooking demo at the Mercado last year. Her method is a little different. After cleaning the nopal, she cooks it whole and cuts it up later.  If you are cooking in a frying pan, this eliminates having to flip each piece individually.

 

Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

At this point you can add to a salad (maybe picnic-style potato salad) or a casserole such as this one with lentils from my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

Although prickly pear is a New World plant, it has spread over the globe. The Spaniards originally took it back to Europe from Mexico. I was fascinated to learn that it has colonized in Ethiopia in a big way.  Some impoverished groups live on the prickly pear fruits for months when they are ripe. But people do not eat the pads there, although they feed them to their livestock.  Here are some photos my friend Seyoum took showing prickly pear and his family in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.

 

Preparing nopales for the livestock.

Preparing nopales for the livestock.

All prickly pear pads are edible; it just depends on how much time you want to spend getting the stickers off. I usually wait until the Ficus Indica pads develop. Those with access to a Mexico grocery store can usually find them there, sometimes already cleaned. Once they are cleaned, they tend to deteriorate quickly, so buy just before you want to cook them. The very best tasting prickly pear pads I’ve ever eaten are grown on the foggy slopes of central California by John Dicus at Rivenrock Gardens. You can find him at http://www.rivenrock.com. He will go in the morning and pick you a boxful and it will be on your porch the next day. They are so fresh, they will last for many weeks in the refrigerator. He grows a variety he found in Maya country in Mexico and they are virtually spineless. And delicious!

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Excited to try prickly pear?  I give you lots of recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Very helpful for controlling blood sugar and cholesterol.

 


 


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Wondrous Weeds!

Tia Marta here to share ideas about our new neighbors—the weedy greens popping up all around us.  With those fall rains we had here in the low desert, there is a bloomin’ haze of green on the desert floor– not what you’d call a florid show—but wait—what is happening where November’s mud-puddles were collecting?  That may be real food lurking in your own backyard!  Now is prime time to take advantage of spontaneous tender mercies and phytonutrients.  Interesting tastes await us, to spice up our salads and bedeck our burritos.

"Wild arugula” or London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) provides zesty greens, flower garnish, and later, mustard seeds when mature. (MABurgess photo)

“Wild arugula” or London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) provides zesty greens, flower garnish, and later, mustard seeds when mature. (MABurgess photo)

London rocket (read “wild arugula”) is everywhere, its greenery literally growing before our eyes in every low swale, rocky hillside, every ditch where water has run.  Sisymbrium irio is an introduced weed which we can enjoy with impunity—the more we eat of them the more we are removing competition for our beloved native plants.  So harvest away!  (A good rule of thumb is to collect at least 50’ from a road.  No need to ingest road dust and pollutants when there is so much to be found in friendly yards or out in the des.)

Prepare for a picante treat, sometimes a picante bite, from these wild mustards.  Toss a few wild arugula leaves with baby greens, or in a BLT to liven it up.  Try them steamed with your favorite garden greens or added to stir-fry.

Hot February weather is telling our wild mustards, “Summer’s coming.  Better go ahead and bloom fast!”  Already we see tiny 4-petaled yellow flowers rising from the rosettes of deeply lobed leaves.  Small erect spikelets of seedpods (called siliques) stand out from the central stem.  Whole flower heads with seedpods are edible, and zingingly picante.  Sooner than we think, seedheads will mature and you can harvest their tiny mustard seeds for dressings or salad sprinkles.

This year, if you spy Lesquerella gordoni (bladderpod), it will stand out like little yellow stars on the bare ground. (MABurgess photo)

This year, if you spy Lesquerella gordoni (bladderpod), it will stand out like little yellow stars on the bare ground. (MABurgess photo)

In some wet winters, a different native mustard known as bladderpod has made carpets of lemon-yellow flowers on the desert floor.  No such show this year.  Should you find a patch of blooming bladderpod, try a taste of its petals.  Their nice nip will add vivid color, nutrition, and excitement to any salad, garni, or burrito topping.

Better known as tumbleweed, Russian thistle (Salsola kali) is best harvested in this tender stage—and every rancher will thank you for your service! (MABurgess photo)

Better known as tumbleweed, Russian thistle (Salsola kali) is best harvested in this tender stage—and every rancher will thank you for your service! (MABurgess photo)

The most ubiquitous of weeds is the introduced Russian thistle which no one seems to notice until it dries, dislodges, tumbles across the road on a crosswind, and stacks up next to a fence or obstacle.  So now, while it is in its infancy, go out to that windbreak and find its progeny!  Have no compunction about snipping it at ground level while it is only inches high, young, and tender—before sharp stems develop making it unpalatable to humanoids.  You will be amazed at what it adds, snipped in short pieces fresh in a salad, steamed with butter and pepper, or stir-fried with other veggies.

Our many species of saltbush (Atriplex spp.) are tender and ready for picking in late winter into spring. (MABurgess photo)

Our many species of saltbush (Atriplex spp.) are tender and ready for picking in late winter into spring. (MABurgess photo)

Find saltbush's gray greenery along the Santa Cruz floodplain--or plant it in your yard for wildlife habitat. (MABurgess photo)

Find saltbush’s gray greenery along the Santa Cruz floodplain–or plant it in your yard for wildlife habitat. (MABurgess photo)

Now is saltbush’s time to shine—in landscaping and in cuisine.  Here in Baja Arizona there are many species of Atriplex, and all are edible.  These tough shrubs are desert survivors for sure.  They tend to grow in “waste places” where hardly any other plants can make it.  The name saltbush indicates its habitat, where soil is salty,heavy, or full of caliche.  Quail and other creatures find refuge and forage in the dense shrubs.  If you want to attract birds into your yard, go to Desert Survivors Nursery, Tucson, and buy any saltbush to plant—then stand back.  We humans can join in the saltbush foraging guiltlessly, as saltbush is plentiful and our harvesting may even stimulate re- growth.

Nearly every Native nation in the Southwest has a tradition of using saltbush in multiple ways.   When its stiff salty leaves are youthful they can be picked for cooking with other greens, the style of traditional Akimel O’odham, the River Pima.  My Tohono O’odham teacher Juanita would steam saltbush with cholla buds, and told me how “the old people would roast their cholla buds in layered beds of ontk i:wagi [salt spinach].”  Hopi cooks make a kind of baking powder out of pulverized saltbush foliage.

Try young saltbush leaves cooked with heirloom cannelini beans or cranberry beans—for a flavorful variation on beans-and-greens.  You’ll find that the salts which the plants have sequestered from the soil will add a delicious desert flavoring.  Move over, Hawaiian sea-salt!  (After saltbushes have flowered, we will “talk seeds”—stay tuned….)

NativeSeeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org) and Mission Garden (www.tucsonsbirthplace.org) carry seed of a domestic relative of saltbush called “orache” which provides a purple-leafed “green” for a winter veggie garden.

Did you ever contemplate cheeseweed thru the day? (Are you kidding?) Its palmate leaf is a sun-tracker!  I discovered these young Malva neglecta in late afternoon with each leaf bent westerly, cupped, facing the setting sun.(MABurgess photo)

Did you ever contemplate cheeseweed thru the day? (Are you kidding?) Its palmate leaf is a sun-tracker! I discovered these young Malva neglecta in late afternoon with each leaf bent westerly, cupped, facing the setting sun.(MABurgess photo)

Ah, cheeseweed—the “scourge” of gardeners, when it gets established.  Malva or cheeseweed, so called for its cheese-wheel shaped seed pod, is another one of those introduced weeds which tend to follow humans.  Only harvestable when young– get it while you can.  You’ll find it in disturbed flat areas where stock or off-roaders have churned up the natural soil, along fencelines or untended sidewalk margins.  Beware, cheeseweed seems to be sought-after by wandering dogs as a “marker plant” so wash your harvest well.

New Malva foliage can make a nutritious addition to steamed collards, kale, acelgas, or turnip tops; or stir-fried with peppers, onion, and slices of winter squash.  If you want to explore Malva’s medicinal qualities, try the foliage steeped as a tea for soothing tender digestive tract tissue or urinary tract.  It makes a healing topical poultice as well.

Life-giving weeds are all around us, especially now with their ju-ju rising.  Really no one need be hungry here.  We’d all be healthier if we were eating more of these spontaneous gifts brought by Nature and human mobility.  My respect for weeds and knowledge of their goodness outweighs my frustration as I pull them from my garden.  Here’s wishing you happy weed harvesting, a new way of enjoying the pulses of life in the desert!

If you are lucky enough to locate Carolyn Niethammer’s book Tumbleweed Gourmet, Univ. of AZ Press, 1987, grab it!  Find more info about traditional uses of saltbush in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy Hodgson, Univ. of AZ Press, 2001.  Find medicinal uses of Malva neglecta in Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Mus. of NewMexico Press, 1989.  Mission Garden is open on Saturday afternoons for guided tours, and NativeSeeds/SEARCH store at 3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, is open daily 10am-5pm.

Visit me, Tia Marta, for more weedy ideas and heirloom beans galore at the Flor de Mayo booth, St Phillips Farmers Market on Sundays 9am-1pm. (www.flordemayoarts.com).

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Pear and Mesquite: A Perfect Combo

Mesquite Ginger Pear Tart Ready for the oven.

Mesquite Ginger Pear Tart Ready for the oven.

Hello everyone.  This is Carolyn Niethammer and this is my week for the Savor the Southwest blog.

With mesquite millings happening all over Arizona, it’s time to plan for what you’ll make with your delicious mesquite meal.  Pancakes are fine for mornings at home, but when you are headed for a holiday potluck, something a little special is required to show how attuned you are to our desert foods. This Mesquite Ginger Pear Tart fills the bill.  I adapted the recipe from an old Joy of Cooking recipe for an apple cake. This is better! Ginger, a warm spice, always goes so well with mesquite.

I give you the recipe at the bottom, but here are the steps.  Works best if you have a springform pan so you can remove the sides of the pan from the finished cake without disturbing the topping. However if all you have is a regular cake pan, just carefully tip it over onto a plate, then flip it back.  You may have to reposition a few nuts, but it will taste great.

First make the batter.  Use your fingers to push it to the edges of the pan.

Spread the cake batter with your fingers.

Spread the cake batter with your fingers.

Cut a perfectly ripe pear into quarters, then into nice even slices.

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Arrange the pear slices on top of the batter.

Make a pretty pinwheel pattern with the pear slices.

Make a pretty pinwheel pattern with the pear slices.

Mix the topping and sprinkle over the pear slices.

Crumbly topping will add sweetness and crunch to your cake.

Crumbly topping will add sweetness and crunch to your cake.

After baking, cool and remove from the springform pan.

Fragrant Mesquite Ginger Pear Cake.

Fragrant Mesquite Ginger Pear Cake.

Now that you know the method, here’s the recipe:

Mesquite-Ginger Pear Cake

1 cup flour

¼ cup mesquite meal

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons butter

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup milk

2 large pears, sliced

Topping:

½ cup sugar

¼ cup mesquite meal

3 tablespoons melted butter

¼ cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Prepare a 8- or 9-inch springform pan by lining with a buttered piece of paper cut to fit the pan. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, mesquite meal, salt and sugar.  Fluff with a fork until well combined. Add the butter and rub with your fingers or cut with a pastry blender until butter is worked in.

In a glass measuring cup, put the ¼ cup milk and then beat in the egg and vanilla. Stir into the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter.  Press into the prepared pan with spatula or your dampened fingers. Arranged sliced pears in a circular pattern on top of batter.

In a small bowl, mix the ½ cup sugar, mesquite meal, and melted butter.  Sprinkle evenly over cake and pears. Top with chopped nuts. Bake in preheated oven for about 25 minutes. Remove sides of pan and cool. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

Delicious slice of Mesquite Ginger Pear Tart.

Delicious slice of Mesquite Ginger Pear Tart.

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Looking for more ideas to use your mesquite meal? Check out Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  It includes recipes for 23 easily identified and gathered plants that grow all over the Southwest.

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