“A Desert Feast” Tells Story of a Heritage Grain

In 2015 Tucson was named the first U.S. UNESCO City of Gastronomy. That word “gastronomy,” as defined by UNESCO, isn’t about fancy restaurants, but rather it refers to a region’s entire food system. A Desert Feast, Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary History, my new book, draws on thousands of years of food history to explain the UNESCO designation. The book traces the influences of Native American, Mexican, mission-era Mediterranean, and ranch-style cowboy traditions. It is is a food pilgrimage, full of stories and recipes stretching back to the earliest residents of the Santa Cruz Valley. You’ll read how the earliest farmers first learned to grow corn beginning in 2100 BC, where the Hohokam built elaborate their elaborate irrigation canals, and how the arrival of the Spanish changed everything.

Like life, the big story is made up of many small stories. One of them is how in the late 1690s, Father Eusebio Kino brought winter wheat to Upper Sonora, filling an important food niche. Today we still eat this crop, ground into flour for delicious pastries or eaten whole as in this salad, in the photo below.

The volunteers at the Mission Garden in Tucson always grow a large field of Sonoran White Wheat to take us back to an earlier time when fields of this grain grew along the banks of the Santa Cruz River.

Volunteers harvest Sonoran winter wheat in the Mission Garden in the spring.

 Sonoran White Wheatberry Salad

Sonoran White Wheatberry Salad with dried fruit.

This is modified from a dish made by Chef Janos Wilder and served at Downtown Kitchen+Cocktails in Tucson. Chop all the fruit into pieces about the size of raisins. This takes well to a fruit flavored vinaigrette. If you have any fruit vinegars or olive oil, this is a good place to use them.

1 cup dry wheatberries

1/3 cup chopped dates (about 6)

1/3 cup chopped apricots or golden raisins

½ cup chopped apple

1 shredded carrot

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese

1 cup shredded baby spinach


4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon honey or agave syrup

1 teaspoon mustard

2 tablespoons fruit vinegar

Cover wheatberries with 2 cups water, bring to a boil, cover and turn heat down to a simmer. Cook  45-60 minutes until tender but chewy.  Transfer to a medium bowl and add fruit, carrots and seeds. Make the dressing put the oil in a cup and stir in the honey and mustard. Dribble the vinegar in while whisking vigorously with a fork. Add to other ingredients and stir to combine.  Refrigerate. Just before serving stir in shredded spinach and top with crumbled goat cheese.


A Desert Feast: Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary Heritage tells the history of how residents of the Santa Cruz Valley have fed themselves over thousands of years, why they are still eating some of the same foods over that time, and how that led to Tucson’s designation of the first American city to earn the coveted UNESCO City of Gastronomy. You can order the book from your favorite bookstore, on-line, or from the Native Seeds/SEARCH bookstore.


Pumpkin Time in Baja Arizona!

Male flower Magdalena Big Cheese squash (MAB photo)

Male flower Magdalena Big Cheese squash (MAB photo)

Tia Marta here to celebrate the pumpkins and squashes that are now plumping up in every garden and popping up in farmers markets. These sculptural fruits of the vine are our visual signal of autumn and herald cool weather cuisine. So many people ask, “What’s the difference between pumpkins and squashes?” Really there is not much difference, except that, to some ears, “pumpkin” sounds fun but is never eaten, while squash sounds like something your mother made you eat and you didn’t discover how good they are until you discovered Mexican food! (Yum, calabacitas.) Often pumpkins refer to the jack-o-lantern type squash—a Cucurbita pepo—but many squashes of other Cucurbita species are also called “pumpkin” so the term is not cut and dried.
While chubasco rains keep sprinkling our desert, my squash vines have continued to elongate and to flower into the fall. I’m hoping to have winter squashes coming on until the frost hits. Meanwhile, I can go out each morning to assist in pollinating any female flowers with the hefty stamens of the male flowers. Then, what a treat it is to take the plucked, spent male flower and sauté it with eggs for breakfast!

Tohono O'odham Ha:l and curry pumpkins at SanXavierCoop booth, SantaCruz Farmers Market (MABphoto)

Tohono O’odham Ha:l and curry pumpkins at SanXavierCoop booth, SantaCruz Farmers Market (MABphoto)

Native People domesticated several varieties of squash or pumpkin centuries before Europeans invaded North America. We all know the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving story, but here in the Baja Arizona borderlands we should be giving a lot of thanks to the Tohono O’odham, the Yoreme, the Guarijio, and the Raramuri for the gifts of fabulous squashes they have given to all desert gardeners and farmers. From the Tohono O’odham comes the giant cushaw winter squash, known as Tohono O’odham Ha:l or “Papago Pumpkin,” (Cucurbita argyrosperma) with its bulbous pear shape and thick corky peduncle (its vine attachment.)

Tohono O'odham Ha:l "Papago Pumpkin" showing characteristic corky attachment and colorful stripes (MABphoto)

Tohono O’odham Ha:l “Papago Pumpkin” showing characteristic corky attachment and colorful stripes (MABphoto)

From the Yoreme or Mayo comes the round, oranged-fleshed Mayo blusher (Cucurbita maxima). From the Guarijio comes a grand segualca (Cucurbita moschata). And from the Raramuri or Tarahumara, comes the striped mini-pumpkin with sweet orange flesh (Cucurbita pepo). This last one is the pumpkin Native Seeds/SEARCH grew in plenty last year and returned to drought-stressed Tarahumara farmers in a cross-the-border sharing. Check out http://www.nativeseeds.org for images of each of these lovely squashes, or visit the Mission Garden at the base of A-Mountain to see maturing fruits from the monsoon planting. Then plan ahead for next year to plant some of each in your own monsoon garden for great winter cookery and for sharing with neighbors.

All of these Native pumpkins/squashes are the ultimate in desert adaptation. They grow well in the heat with monsoon rains, AND, they keep for long periods of time without refrigeration over the winter. Talk about an easy, low-tech way to preserve food! I have kept the hard-shelled Tohono O’odham Ha:l outside in the shade of my back porch from October’s harvest into May of the following year when temperatures soared. That’s what you call a keeper.

Tarahumara pumpkins Oct2014 from 2013 harvest (MABphoto)

Tarahumara pumpkins Oct2014 from 2013 harvest (MABphoto)

With last fall’s harvest of Tarahumara pumpkins, I started another experiment in non-refrigerated storage. I kept 2 medium-sized pumpkins inside on a tile floor out of direct sun. Over the summer they turned from green striped to bright yellow-orange on the outside. I had no idea this week what they would be like inside when I opened them at last for cooking. To my surprise and gladness the flesh was still firm and gorgeous—bright with beta-carotenes—and the seeds were plump and not-yet-sprouted.

Rich flesh and seed of Tarahumara pumpkin (MABphoto)

Rich flesh and seed of Tarahumara pumpkin (MABphoto)

Pumpkin seeds cleaned to dry and save for next year's planting (MABphoto)

Pumpkin seeds cleaned to dry and save for next year’s planting (MABphoto)

With such luscious pumpkin seeds, some had to be saved for next summer’s garden and some had to become snacks. Here is what I did to them. Give it a try with your next opened pumpkin:

Spicy Sweet Pumpkin Seed Snacks
(Makes 1 cup)
1 cup of pumpkin seeds, cleaned
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 tablespoon of honey
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
¼ tsp of chile powder (choose mild, medium, or hot, depending on your palette)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
(Some recipes call for boiling seeds first, for 10 minutes in 4 cups of water then draining before the next step. It helps to soften the hulls but may remove some nutrients. This step is optional–I don’t bother.) Transfer seeds to a bowl, toss with the honey, oil, and spice ingredients until fully covered, then spread them out evenly onto a baking sheet that has been coated lightly with cooking oil or non-stick spray.
Bake for about 12-15 minutes, tossing once, or until the seeds are crispy and lightly golden brown. Let them cool before serving — they will get even crispier. Pumpkin seeds contain zinc which is great for fall-weather immune fortifying. They also contain L-arginine which is especially good for guys. Enjoy this tasty Southwest snack!

Chile-and-honey-roasted pumpkin seed snacks (MABphoto)

Chile-and-honey-roasted pumpkin seed snacks (MABphoto)

Next I prepared the Tarahumara pumpkin itself for a truly local autumn dessert. It takes a cleaver to carefully open a winter squash and to chunk it into segments small enough to fit into the saucepan. After you scoop out the seeds and fiber, you can boil, steam or bake the pumpkin chunks with skin or shell on. When softened and cooled, scoop out the pulp. Don’t hesitate–serve it with butter and sea salt as a hot vegetable right away. With the remainder, mash or puree it, storing it in freezer for later using in pies, empanaditas, or—as you’ll see below—in a fabulous Sonoran Pumpkin Cake!


Tarahumara pumpkin cleaned and chunked for cooking (MABphoto)

Tarahumara pumpkin cleaned and chunked for cooking (MABphoto)

SONORAN PUMPKIN CAKE with White Sonora Wheat and Mesquite
(inspired by NativeSeeds/SEARCH pot-luck favorite volunteer Ed Hackskyalo)
Recommended for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and other autumn occasions.

Preheat oven to 350.
2 cups sugar (or alternative sweetener such as agave nectar or honey)
1 cup vegetable oil or softened butter (adjust less with liquid sweeteners)
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 – 2 ½ cups heirloom White Sonora Wheat pastry flour (fresh-milled flour needs adjusting)**
¼ – 1/2 cup mesquite pod meal**
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups “Papago Pumpkin” or other native squash, cooked and pureed (or pumpkin puree)

Combine sugar, vegetable oil, and eggs in a large mixing bowl; mix well. Sift dry
ingredients into a separate bowl; stir into liquid mixture, beating well. Stir in pumpkin puree.
Pour batter into two greased and floured 9 inch cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for
35 to 40 minutes. Turn out onto racks to cool.

l package (8 ounces) reduced fat cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, measure then sift (use less to taste, as less sweet is nice contrast to cake)
½ – 1 teaspoons vanilla extract (as needed for smoothing)
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl; beat well until smooth. Makes enough
for a 2-layer pumpkin cake. Frost pumpkin cake with cream-cheese frosting and sprinkle with chopped pecans or pine nuts for extra decor.

**Organic heirloom White Sonora Wheat-berries and flour, and local mesquite pod meal ,are available from Flor de Mayo at St Phillips farmers market on Sundays, or http://www.flordemayoarts.com or 520-907-9471. Whole grain organic White Sonora Wheat-berries for home-milling and mesquite meal are also available at NativeSeeds/SEARCH, 3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, or online http://www.nativeseeds.org.

Sonoran Pumpkin Cake made with organic heirloom White Sonora Wheat and mesquite  (MABphoto)

Sonoran Pumpkin Cake made with organic heirloom White Sonora Wheat and mesquite (MABphoto)

Sonoran Pumpkin Cake tea time on wheat china to honor the Wong Family farmers who are helping to save the ancient white Sonora wheat (MABphoto)

Sonoran Pumpkin Cake tea time on wheat china to honor the Wong Family farmers who are helping to save the ancient white Sonora wheat (MABphoto)

Now in their fifth generation of farming, the Wong Family of BKWFarms in Marana, have taken a rare heirloom wheat–the White Sonora Wheat that Padre Kino introduced into the Sonoran Desert over 300 years ago and “saved” by Native Seeds/SEARCH seed conservationists–and have made it a certified organic and sustainable crop again for the Southwest.  Bravo to the Wongs for making this low-gluten food treasure available to us!

Organic Wheat Farmer Ron Wong, Big Jim Griffith, and Karen Dotson of BKWFarms at Tucson Meet Yourself 2014 (MABphoto)

Organic Wheat Farmer Ron Wong, Big Jim Griffith, and Karen Dotson of BKWFarms at Tucson Meet Yourself 2014 (MABphoto)

BKWFarms and Flor de Mayo gave out samples of White Sonora Wheat-berry sprouts and a fabulous Sonoran Shortbread made with the White Sonora Wheat flour at the recent Tucson Meet Yourself festivities.  Coming up….Come try samples at the Flor de Mayo table this next weekend at the Chiles Chocolate and Salsa Event, Tohono Chul Park, Oct 25-26.   Every Sunday at St Phillips Farmers Market you can find taste surprises made with White Sonora Wheat-berries or mesquite at the Flor de Mayo booth–Stop by and visit Tia Marta and Rod!  And tell your friends in Phoenix not to miss our Flor de Mayo display at the Dia de los Muertos celebration, Desert Botanical Garden Nov 1-2.

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 http://www.tucsonsbirthplace.org).

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 (judysculinaria.wordpress.com) 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 (www.heirloomfarmersmarkets.com).  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 judysculinaria.wordpress.com

Luscious Easter Wheatberry pie, from judysculinaria.wordpress.com

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 http://www.nativeseeds.org, also at Flor de Mayo’s booth at Sunday St Phillips Farmers’ Market, Tucson, http://www.flordemayoarts.com 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 http://www.nativeseeds.org).   (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!