Fear not summer pancakes! The rising sun brings a bushel of mesquite pods – pale yellow and plump, or beige with little eye spots to a splatter of brilliant purple veins like ‘80s abstract art – all waiting to be milled into flour.
The mesquite is all around you, but only recently has it become yet again an item to be eaten, rather than simply the nuisance that sticks out from your car hood or shatters into a dusty scene on the sidewalk.
Mesquite has been a staple of Sonoran cuisine since before modern civilization, when people such as the Tohono O’odham ground it on a metate into meal, putting it into everything from medicine to makeup. As a food, the sweet, yet vegetal pods are naturally gluten-free, with a high protein and fiber content and a low-glycemic index perfect for diabetics. During today’s local food renaissance, adventurous chefs and Tucson locavores are throwing the pods into everything from granola to soup.
I learned a little about the bounty of mesquite during a recent community milling, where folks showed up in the pink haze of the early morning with buckets and bags spewing with pods, destined to be sorted and ground skin and all by an Amish-looking machine called a hammermill.
Unlike previous years, local nonprofit Desert Harvesters is encouraging people to pick their mesquite pods before the monsoon season begins. With the summer rains, moisture often brings a dangerous aflatoxin mold that can send people to the hospital if they ingest too much.
To assure you’re picking healthful and good quality mesquite, author and Desert Harvesters co-founder Brad Lancaster suggests taking these considerations into mind:
- Always pick the pods off the tree, rather than gathering them from the ground, which can be contaminated by animal matter and other pollutants.
- Only pick pods that are yellow, or yellow with red or purple stripes. Don’t pick green pods, as they aren’t yet ripe. Take the pod in your hand, and break it. If it’s ripe, it should snap, rather than bend.
- Not every tree is created equal. Many varieties from Chile and Peru have chalky, bitter tastes when grown in the American Southwest. Your best bet is to find a native Sonoran velvet, screwbean or honey mesquite, which thrive in our dry climate. (Stay tuned for our next segment on how to find out if your mesquite is native.)
Which brings us to:
- ALWAYS TASTE YOUR POD SAMPLE BEFORE HARVESTING. To do this, break off a piece and chew it in your mouth, spitting out the hard seed and fibers. It should taste sweet, with perhaps a hint of lemon or cocoa. Never harvest pods that taste bitter, chalky or give you a dry-mouth feeling. No matter how you cook with them, they will still taste bad!
Once you find a reliable source of mesquite pods, make sure to collect them before the rains start. Place the pods, unwashed, in a cool dry container and store them for up to months. Desert Harvesters is working to confirm a set of upcoming community millings, so check their website in the coming weeks for more info.
If you’re intoxicated by the possibilities of mesquite but – like me – can’t possibly wait for the next milling (i.e. lazy), pick up a bag of ready-to-use mesquite flour from the Food Conspiracy Co-op or local mesquite producers The Mesquitery at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market or online at mesquiteflour.com. The flour adds richness to pancakes, sweetness to cookies and cornbread, and depth to your desert perspective.
Stay tuned for more coverage on indigenous foods, including a recipe for homemade mesquite pecan pancakes.