There is a local belief that eating too much of the prickly pear’s bewitching fruit, the tuna, can give you chills. For centuries — if not thousands of years — the people of the desert have approached this delicacy with caution.
While rich in antioxidants, the fruit may contain a particular acid that can upset the stomach. Yet even armed with this knowledge, it’s hard to resist when the fruit arrives at your table, cooked down to its essence of screaming pink jelly, dripping off a hunk of crispy toast onto a pure white plate.
Nowadays, you don’t have to go far to experience the masterpieces of the Sonoran Desert. For one thing, they’re growing all around you. But with the rise of the farm-to-table movement, everyone from buzzworthy pop-up chefs to food truck vendors seems to be taking notice of Tucson’s wild ingredients.
The fruit and edible pads of the prickly pear have long been staples of our south-side Mexican restaurants. But now a growing number of new-school chefs are delving into esoteric ingredients such as fiery chiltepin chiles, the tepary beans of the Tohono O’odham and the sweet yet earthy pods of the mesquite tree.
I knew native foods were becoming a thing when I walked into a coffee shop and was offered an iced latte made with pinole flour. Exo Roast Co., an urban “third-wave” espresso bar at 403 N. Sixth Ave. run by Amy and Doug Smith, has become a pioneer in the movement championing the foods of the Southwest.
Sitting at one of the wooden tables with a baby strapped to her chest, Amy spoke of her love for the desert and her desire to take indigenous ingredients and play with them.
“One thing that’s important to us is understanding how coffee culture travels up through Latin America northward,” she said. “We’d like to honor the tradition of coffee from Latin America while pairing it with other traditions from Sonora.”
The iced pinole latte, which includes freshly ground mole by Mano y Metate, is a riff on the rice drink horchata. It’s frothy yet deep and malty from the pinole — a parched corn that’s been used as an energy booster among the Tarahumara people of northwestern Mexico — with a spicy chocolate kick rounded out by the rich espresso.
Exo, like its beer-focused neighbors Tap and Bottle, is also working with the extract of the mesquite pod. Taking the pods whole and boiling them down and reducing the liquid adds an earthy, almost coconut flavor to drinks.
As the summer progresses, mesquite has been a hot topic of sorts, not only for its staggering health properties — the high-protein flour is gluten-free with a low glycemic index for diabetics — but also its accessibility. A recent milling event held at dawn outside of Exo Roast brought a crowd ready with buckets of pods picked across the desert vistas, backyards and washes of Tucson.
Although it’s not advisable to harvest the pods once the monsoon rains have begun, a number of local outlets sell the flour. Brad Lancaster at Desert Harvesters recommends The Mesquitery, a regular vendor at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market at the Mercado San Agustin, 100 S. Avenida del Convento.
Before making a batch of hearty pecan pancakes, I bought a bag from the San Xavier Co-op Farm, a certified naturally grown 1,700-acre plot served by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The nonprofit group runs a farm store on its property at 8100 S. Oidak Wog, in the shadow of Mission San Xavier del Bac. There it sells a variety of native O’odham products: O’odham peas with the texture of garbanzo beans; Pima limas that look and cook like a pinto but taste like a lima; several varieties of the famed tepary bean that’s been popping up in chorizos and veggie burgers across town; and perhaps the most fascinating of all, the dried cholla bud.
The spindly ciolim, as it’s known to the O’odham, often found growing in the spring on the cholla cactus of the Chiricahuas, looks almost like a sad little spider. But when it’s reconstituted in water, the buds plump up three times their size and become springy vegetables similar to asparagus or artichoke heart.
While coordinator and resident chef Phyllis Valenzuela enjoys the “Indian pickle” in everything from pasta salads to sautes to casseroles, I couldn’t imagine this wild immature flower making it to the masses. But after a little research, a surprising yet entirely obvious answer turned up: Janos.
The godfather of Tucson’s eating-local movement, Janos Wilder serves the buds at his swanky Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, at 135 S. Sixth Ave. First, he pickles them in a fragrant escabeche marinade reminiscent of Spain, and then plops them on a freshly ground corn masa gordita along with garlicky shrimp, crumbly queso fresco, a spicy smooth spread made from the tepary beans and a stunning chiltepin salsa.
The dish is named Shrimp With a Sense of Place, and it contains just about every sought-after native ingredient except for the prickly pear. But nevertheless, when sitting in your designer chair with a glass of zinfandel at your side, cutting into the hearty masa spiked with the fresh flavors or our forefathers, it still might give you chills.
With information from “American Indian Cooking” by Carolyn Niethammer.
Contact reporter Andi Berlin at email@example.com. On Twitter: @andiberlin