Mesquite pods hanging from trees on the University of Arizona campus will be converted to scones and cookies this fall, courtesy of a student-led drive to create a food source from a maintenance headache.
Volunteers fan out across campus twice a week to harvest the mesquite pods as they ripen.
Jessica Thompson, who heads the project for the UA Office of Sustainability, said the group has harvested enough pods to make 50 to 100 pounds of flour and hopes to glean triple that amount before the harvest ends.
Campus chefs are working on recipes that will use the flour, said Jon Levengood, the UA's retail dining manager.
"We made lemon poppyseed scones with mesquite meal and they're really, really good. I think those would be a good seller."
His other favorite so far is "mesquite almond cookies."
Mesquite is gluten-free and must be mixed with other flours for baked goods, Levengood said. A ratio of four-to-one seems to work well, he said.
"It's a really unique project and kind of exciting," Levengood said.
Levengood said the project will have an educational component. He wants to make sure his UA customers know the nutritional benefits of eating mesquite products as well as appreciate it as a sustainable practice.
Laurie Melrood, who leads classes on harvesting and cooking with desert plants for the group Desert Harvesters, called the UA program "an outstanding idea. Good for her, and good for the university for encouraging that.
"Mesquite, as a local food, is very much underappreciated," Melrood said.
Thompson said her group is building on the pioneering success of Desert Harvesters. She has talked to its members and used the group's website as a resource for mesquite-gathering techniques.
Brooke Benson, a UA senior in nutritional sciences, said pod-gathering is a good way to rack up some volunteer hours as she gets ready to apply to pharmacy college. "And it's a good way to help the campus," she said. Benson said mesquite flour is high in protein and overall quite nutritious.
"We're taking a waste stream on campus that's a big headache for the maintenance crew and turning it into something useful," Thompson said.
The pod collectors pick from trees only. Pods that have fallen to the ground can be contaminated with "fungus and dog poo," she said.
The volunteers use poles to knock pods down or simply pick those closest to the ground, she said. The university's risk managers ruled out using ladders.
Pods with any evidence of insect damage or mold are picked out, and the clean pods are dried in a greenhouse, then frozen to kill any tiny bruchid beetles that might be living in them.
The beans will be milled into a flour this fall.
Thompson, a senior in environmental science, said the milling will be a community educational event.
For more info
For information about mesquite beans and other harvestable desert foods, visit Desert Harvesters' website at www.desertharvesters.org
Did you know?
The Tohono O'odham name for mesquite is kui, or kui wihog for mesquite beans; the Spanish name is mezquite.
Source: Desert Harvesters
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.