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Celebrating Succulent Food-Plants–Sonoran Centuries and Cholla

Glowing marginal teeth of Agave shrevei from central Sonora. Known there as lechuguilla ceniza (ashy color), and as totosali by the Warijio people, it was traditionally pit-baked for communal eating. (MABurgess photo)

Tia Marta here to take you on a visual tour of our strikingly beautiful Sonoran Desert century plants and cholla which have, for centuries, fed Sonoran Desert people–and continue to do so in interesting new ways!  This is a “photographic appetizer” for the grand gastronomic and libation experiences planned for April into May–an invitation for you to participate in Tucson’s amazing Agave Heritage Festival and Cholla Harvest Workshops.  [For a full schedule of the many culinary, ethnobotanical, artistic and musical agave events, go to http://www.agaveheritagefestival.com.  For info on cholla harvests go to http://www.tucsonsbirthplace.org or call 520-907-9471.]

The Hohokam Century Plant, Agave murpheyi, is planted at Mission Garden to simulate a Hohokam archaeological site where ancient desert people farmed it.  This will be one of the agaves to taste at the Mission Garden’s pit-roasting event as part of the Agave Heritage Festival. (MABurgess photo)

Mescal cenizaAgave colorata–a sculptural Sonoran century plant, was traditionally pit-baked by Native People of NW Mexico.  It gives a superbly attractive focal point in an edible landscape!  (MABurgess)

Natives of the low Sonoran Desert region surrounding the Sea of Cortes, especially Yuman, Tohono O’odham (calling it a’ut) and Seri people (calling it ahmmo), traditionally used various varieties or subspecies of Agave deserti to cook as an important staple in their diet.

Agave deserti (this subspecies from the Anza-Borrego State Park in SE California) was pit-roasted by Native People, adding a rare and delicious sweet to their often sparse menu. (MABurgess)

Roasted agave heart of Agave murpheyi ready to divide and eat! (MABurgess photo)

Agaves bloom only once– a magnificent flower show after a long lifetime–hence the name “Century Plant” as the 15-25 years before maturing seems like a century.   Harvesters, mescaleros, watch year after year until they observe when the center of the leaf rosette begins to show the flower-stalk emerging, the signal the plant is changing its stored starches to sugars for blooming.  (There is a giant agave in central Mexico, Agave salmiana, from which harvesters remove the young flower stalk to create a center “well.” Sweet sap, agua miel, wells up daily, for weeks.  Cooked down and concentrated, that’s the so-called “nectar” being sold as a sweetener to gringos.  Good sweetness–nice product–wrong name.  Nectar is what pollinators drink from flowers; agave sweetener is made from internal sap.)

Agave “nectar”–really sap–makes a healthy sweetener for my prickly pear and chia lemonade. (MABurgess)

When the agave is about to bloom, to make roasted agave (for maguey or mescal), the whole mature plant is harvested, thick leaves chopped off (used for fiber), and the center or head, the cabeza that looks like a pineapple, is roasted in a rock-lined pit.  Cooking often takes 2-3 days and nights.  Once roasted, the fibrous pulp is a nutritious, sweet, chewy treat with complex healthy carbohydrates.

Roasted agave (maguey) leaf base ready to eat, showing fiber and pulp. Wish you could taste its smokey flavor! (MABurgess photo)

Bootleg Sonoran bacanora mescal, made in backyard stills from Agave angustifolia, rests in the succulent linear leaves of its unassuming century plant source.  Importers are now bringing this indigenous Sonoran mescal, bottled legally, into the US–now available at unique saloons such as EXO Coffee and specialty liquor stores.  (MABurgess)

If you haven’t tasted mescal, the distilled spirit made from roasted and fermented agave, you have a treat coming.  In a particular district of Jalisco, Mexico, it is made from  Agave tequilana –the blue agave–known only from there by the more familiar name tequila!  Select Sonoran Desert Agave species produce mescals that some connoisseurs consider even better than tequila.  At the Agave Heritage Festival you can taste several such spirits, to make that determination for yourself!

The beautifully cross-banded, fountain-shaped Agave zebra, from the hottest mountains of NW Sonora, was known for making mescal by local Sonorans prior to the 1950s.  Its stripes and fountain-form adds dramatic accent to an edible landscape.  Young agave plants can be purchased at Tucson’s primo succulent plant source, Plants for the Southwest for growing your own. (MABurgess photo)

Variegated Agave americana makes a vivid desert ornamental. It may have been one of several agaves cultivated by ancient people of the Southwest. (MABurgess photo)

At this year’s Agave Heritage Festival, at celebratory, culinary, artsy and educational events–from Mission Garden to Maynard’s MarketDesert Museum to Carriage House Tucson,  Tohono Chul to Tumamoc Hill,  UA to Pima College, with horticulturalists, scholars, artists, musicians–we will delve into the lore and many gifts of the Agave family.  Learn hands-on–even tastebuds-on— from esteemed experts, ethnobotanist Jesus Garcia, Southwest foods authors Carolyn Niethammer and Gary Paul Nabhan, culinary artists Chef Janos Wilder, Barry Infuso, and Don Guerra, scholars Karen Adams and Maribel Alvarez, to name just a few!  Sign up soon at http://www.agaveheritagefestival.com, giving yourself a gift while supporting such special organizations as NativeSeeds/SEARCH, Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Tohono Chul Park.

Alongside the Agave events, as the succulent season progresses, there are other desert foods to harvest and taste in new recipes, inspired by both traditional knowledge and ideas for sustainable desert living into the future.  Cholla buds and nopalitos from several cactus species will be featured in upcoming workshops.  To call up lots of neat info from past http://www.SavortheSouthwest.blog posts, insert the word “cholla” into the search-box above for a feast of ideas, then……

 

Vivid flower of staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) with spiny bud ready to harvest.  Learn how to carefully pick, de-spine, cook and prepare this super-food in wondrous recipes at Mission Garden and Flor de Mayo workshops.  (MABurgess photo)

As cholla cacti begin to bloom, it’s time to harvest the buds!  Join me Friday, April 20, 2018, at the Mission Garden Cholla Harvest Workshop — Sign ups at http://www.tucsonsbirthplace.org.  Or, on Saturday, April 21, come to Flor de Mayo’s Cholla Harvest on Tucson’s west side–contact www.flordemayoarts.com and 520-907-9471.  Cooking School classes are happening at Janos’ Carriage House, http://www.carriagehousetucson.com, and Gastronomy Tours downtown are being scheduled at the Presidio Museum, http://www.tucsonpresidio.com.

I hope you have enjoyed my Photo Gallery and that you may enjoy many a succulent Sonoran Desert dish and libation this season–more ways to honor Tucson as an International City of Gastronomy!

May we all toast the spirit of Agave Goddess Mayahuel!

Categories: Cooking, Edible Landscape Plant, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Cordial Tribute to Time Itself–Valentine’s Dessert Toasts

Time–to be exact, good timing, plus duration and patience–are necessary ingredients in making most good dishes.  All of these are enlisted in creating festive cordials. Here, a native fan palm cordial made with tiny wild dates (in bowl), harvested & put up in the fall…after months later… produced a luscious cordial for a sweet Valentine surprise.  Time to celebrate! (MABurgess photo)

Let’s tip a toast to Father Time who allows magic to be wrought upon our local desert fruits.  The joyous results of his temporal magic can be festive and delightful cordials.  With a little industry, when our desert fruits are ripe in late summer or fall, there can be heartwarming dessert drinks to help celebrate chilly winter evenings–and especially fine for your favorite Valentine.

Tia Marta here, with an additional toast, this one to the father of Slow Knowledge, agricultural philosopher/author Wendell Berry.  His “slow knowledge”–yea wisdom–comes with growing one’s own food (or wild-harvesting), watching the near-imperceptable progress played by Nature and Father Time on leafing, flowering, fruiting, fermentation, decay of individual plants, small or tall, in garden, farm, wild desert, forest.  Being present is a key to “slow knowledge,” something sorely missed if one is always absorbed in a device.  Lack of slow knowledge may lead to atrophy of human brain neurons. There is evidence that practicing slow knowledge, being out in Nature, in fact enhances brain function and development, broadens associative thinking, deductive and inductive reasoning, adds serenity, promotes compassion….Hey what’s not to like about it?

We had left our Meyer lemons on the tree past the holidays to fully sweeten up. When frost was predicted, we quick-harvested 52 giant juicy fruits from one little tree! (MABurgess photo)

Meyer lemon does well in a low desert garden. It’s juice is so sweet and even its thin rind is edible!  All parts of Meyer lemon are used in creating limoncello.  Juice and thinly sliced rind all go into the mix to mull. (MABurgess photo)

Time and tequila produced the finest limoncello ever with Meyer lemon!  (MABurgess photo)

I’d like to share four of my favorite ways–four cordials– to celebrate time, with fruits that our Southwest gardens, orchards, and even prickly desert can supply in plenty:  1) Native fan palm “Desert Oasis Cordial” depicted above made with the seedy dates of our ubiquitous Washingtonia filifera (Read more by searching Jan.20, 2015’s post in this blog archive), 2) special Meyer Limoncello, 3) Prickly Pear Cordial, and 4) Colorado Cherry Cordial.  They are really so easy to make with speedy prep-time– a good investment in one’s spare minutes when there is a bumper crop of fruits shouting for attention.

General Cordial Instructions:  In order for all four cordials to “make,” i.e. to sit and mull, you will need a sanitized sealable crock or large canning jar.  Wash and cut your fruits (no need to cut the teensy native palm dates), measure equal quantities of:

a) fruit,

b) spirits (I use good 100% agave tequila or mescal, but vodka also works fine), and

c) a natural sweetener (I use agave nectar but my mother used sugar successfully).

Pack fruit into jars, add sweetener, cover with spirits, seal, and set aside in a cool, dark place for as many weeks or months as possible, checking periodically for progress or problems.

After mulling for months in tequila, the halved prickly pear tunas have lost their bright purple color but have lost none of their great flavor! Mash to free up their juices.

Decant by filtering prickly pear fruit&juice mix, separating fruit, seed, and remaining spines using a masher and coffee filter set in a funnel over a bowl or measuring cup to capture the precious cordial.

Several folded layers of cheesecloth set in a funnel can be used in decanting the prickly pear cordial.

Essentially, with the help of Time, you are making a sweet herbal tincture. Decanting is the next step.  Remember those gorgeous rosey red prickly pear tunas gathered carefully in August?  (Yes, planning ahead is paramount.  Put it on your calendar now for next August.)  At harvest, I washed and removed as many spines as possible, cut them in half, and set them in the canning jar, seeds and all, with the other ingredients.  Now at decanting time I must make sure to filter out all solid parts to clarify the cordial.  Coffee filters or layered cheesecloth resting in a funnel over your catcher-cup or bottle will work perfectly.  After filtering, store your cordial in glass indefinitely–to enjoy on special occasions.

Prickly Pear Cordial sits next to its drought-stressed provider, Engelmann’s prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) the winter after a grand August harvest. What gifts these plants provide!  Given rain, they bounce back to give more next year.  (MABurgess)

Colorado Cherry Cordial with delicious “marinated” cherries to be used for topping on ice cream. (MABurgess photo)

You can view native fan palms on the University of Arizona campus, lemon trees at the Tucson Botanical Garden, and Engelmann’s prickly pear close up at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and at Tucson’s Mission Garden.  Find more traditional foods at http://www.flordemayoarts.com and http://www.nativeseeds.org.  And watch for upcoming City of Gastronomy tours in Tucson beginning in March at Tucson’s Presidio Museum–Stay tuned at http://www.tucsonpresidio.com.

Now a cordial toast to you, dear Savor Blog Follower!  May you delight in these spirited fruits of the desert and delight in the time they take to bring us this cheer!

Categories: Cooking, Edible Landscape Plant, fruit, Libations, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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