Those skinny yellow tree pods falling into the swimming pool and littering the lawn seem like nothing more than a messy nuisance — until you realize they can be turned into crackers, cookies, bread and even ice cream.
“Once you get hooked on these foods, you won’t want to go without. Most of the time, I try to collect a little more than I need, just in case I can’t get out and pick enough the next year,” says Amy Valdés Schwemm, a Tucson specialty food retailer who’s harvested mesquite pods from neighborhood trees for years.
The long, string bean-like seed pods are abundant in the Valley. They appear throughout the summer on the mesquite tree, a popular choice for suburban landscapes. For the unknowing, the pods are rubbish to be swept up and tossed in the green waste barrel. For those who take the time to pick, dry and mill the pods, they yield a sweet, nutty flour.
“It’s gluten free, and it has a low glycemic index. It has a great amount of protein, and it’s a low-cost protein, nutritionally; it’s not high in calories and it’s not fatty,” says Chloe Beauford, class coordinator with Valley Permaculture Alliance.
The nonprofit group that teaches sustainable lifeways will host a breakfast Saturday in Tempe, where the public can taste mesquite flour pancakes drizzled with agave and prickly pear syrups. Beauford will teach a class that day on using mesquite and other desert foods in your cooking.
“Most of us don’t realize that something hanging off every tree and falling all over driveways this time of year is food,” she says.
Arizona’s early indigenous people figured it out long ago. According to the Desert Harvesters, a Tucson group that supports planting native mesquite trees as food sources, Native Americans crushed mesquite pods to make cakes and porridge or to flavor drinks.
In Arizona, the most common native mesquite trees are velvet, honey and screwbean mesquites. Other varieties, brought in from South America for their landscaping value, don’t taste as good.
“Some are quite acrid and chalky,” says Schwemm, a Desert Harvesters volunteer and class instructor.
A simple backyard or neighborhood taste test can determine which trees to harvest from.
“It’s very important, before you harvest from a tree, to take a pod off the tree and chew it up. You have to be careful. The seeds are very hard, so you don’t want to break a tooth. You really want to focus on chewing and getting the flavor from the pod, not the seeds. If it’s sweet and tasty, you can collect from that tree,” says Schwemm.
You may have to sample pods from a few trees before you gain a sense of which taste good. You also want avoid trees with likely exposure to contaminants. The Desert Harvesters advise steering clear of trees growing along roads with high volumes of traffic, in areas where you suspect pesticides or herbicides are used on the ground, and near wooden telephone poles. Look out, too, for trees in the path of polluted runoff.
When pods are ready, they’ll be brittle, tan or yellowish in color, and give easily from the tree. If you have to pull much to remove them, they’re not ready.
Harvest time is now, but storms may knock dry pods off the trees. Rather than pick them up off the ground, wait until the rains pass. Some years, trees will produce a second round of pods later in the summer.
Beauford says it’s better to pick pods from a tree, instead of gathering fallen pods. On the ground, they could come into contact with animal droppings or grow moldy sitting in moist layers.
Be on guard for tiny holes in the pods, where hatching beetle larvae have exited. Schwemm says the bugs should be gone, save a moth or two that might have crawled into the holes, but it’s a personal preference “how many ground-up bugs you’re willing to tolerate in your mesquite flour.”
Most people dry the pods in the sun or use low and slow heat in the oven to eradicate moisture without toasting the pods. When dry enough, they should snap in two easily. Dry pods can then be stored in airtight containers at room temperature or in the freezer until milling time — when pods are ground into flour at milling events around Arizona.
The Desert Harvesters cart a hammermill, a large piece of farming machinery, around the state, charging a nominal fee for people to grind their pods ground into flour. A household blender or food processor simply isn’t up to the job, says Schwemm.
A 5 gallon bucket of mesquite pods will yield 1 gallon of mesquite flour. Because it has no gluten, the flour should be mixed with standard flour in recipes. For example, says Schwemm, in a recipe calling for 1 cup regular flour, a quarter cup to a half cup of that amount can be replaced with mesquite flour. A 2009 cookbook, “Eat Mesquite!” ($20), is available at www.desertharvesters.org.
Beauford says harvesting your own pods is a fun, educational activity for a lot of families and for people simply interested in local or native foods or in how civilizations survived in the desert before farming, ranching and supermarkets.
“It’s a fascinating experiment, to have something that you’ve gathered turned into a flour that you can then take home and make confections from or toss in a smoothie or simply dust a piece of fish or meat or vegetables in as a coating,” she says.
LEARN MORE ABOUT MESQUITE
MESQUITE PANCAKE BREAKFAST & COOKING CLASS
What: Wake up to pancakes made from mesquite and carob flour at this fundraising event hosted by the Valley Permaculture Alliance. A “Cooking with Mesquite and Other Native Foods” class outlines how to incorporate mesquite, prickly pear and other desert produce into your cooking.
When: Class begins at 8 a.m. Saturday; breakfast is 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: The University Club, 425 E. University Drive, Tempe
Cost: Breakfast is $15 per adult and free for children 12 and younger; tickets must be reserved online before Saturday. Suggested donation for the cooking class is $10 per person; reserve your spot in advance.
Information: (602) 325-1230 or www.valleypermaculturealliance.org
VALLEY PERMACULTURE ALLIANCE MESQUITE MILLING EVENT
What: Have your dried mesquite pods ground into flour and learn about ways to use the flour.
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16
Where: Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, 3131 S. Central Ave., Phoenix
Cost: $10 per 5-gallon bucket of mesquite pods
Information: (602) 325-1230 or www.valleypermaculturealliance.org
DESERT HARVESTERS MESQUITE MILLING EVENTS
The Desert Harvesters host several mesquite milling and food sampling events this fall in Southern Arizona. For details, go to www.desertharvesters.org.
Nov. 12: 13th annual Cascabel Mesquite Milling & Pancake Breakfast, Cascabel
Nov. 17: 7th annual Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market Mesquite Milling, Tucson
Nov. 20: 9th annual Desert Harvesters Mesquite Milling Fiesta & Mesquite Pancake Breakfast, Tucson
EDIBLE & MEDICINAL DESERT PLANTS WALKING TOURS
What: Apache Junction author Jean Groen and ethnobotanist Dave Morris explore the many uses of the mesquite tree, as well as other Sonoran Desert plants, on these hourlong tours along the Curandero trail.
When: 8:30 a.m. July 24 and Aug. 28
Where: Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, 37615 U.S. Highway 60, Superior
Cost: Included with general admission of $7.50 per adult and $3 for children 5-12.
Information: (520) 689-2811 or www.ag.arizona.edu/bta
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