Cooking the Wild Southwest

Sunday, November 13, 2011
Saturday morning I headed out early for another one of my Tucson adventures. It started out as a little bit more of an adventure than I had anticipated. Traffic had slowed to almost a stop and I wondered what could be causing it. Because it was Saturday, the elementary school wasn't in session and I doubted that they were doing the road construction that has been a problem this past month on my way to work.

As I crept up to the site of the problem, I had to smile to myself. There was a steer on the side of the road with a member of Tucson's finest parked nearby. Well, there is an Open Range sign not far from there, but there's also a fence which is supposed to keep the cattle off the road. Apparently this steer had discovered a way through the fence.

In case you're thinking that I live out in the wilds of Arizona, let me remind you that I'm inside Tucson city limits in a typical Southwestern subdivision. It's just that typical in Tucson isn't quite like typical in Boston or New York. The line of cars managed to pass by the steer with damage to neither steer nor cars and I proceeded on my journey to Tohono Chul Park.

I'm always interested in local foods. There's nothing more disappointing to me than going to a new place and eating at McDonald's or some other chain restaurant. I'd much prefer to sample some of the local fare. Even better is cooking them yourself. Since I didn't grow up in Tucson, I didn't learn how to use mesquite flour or prickly pear pads from my mother, which is why I eagerly signed up for a class given by Carolyn Niethammer. She's just released a new cookbook and I wanted to see her prepare these strange foods. I also wanted to know where I could buy them since I don't have time for gardening.

She started right off with the pad from a prickly pear cactus, illustrating how to remove the spines and nubs with a serrated knife before trimming the edges and stem. Then she diced them up. Apparently you can buy them already cleaned and diced from one of the markets here, but you have to use them within a day or they go bad. These are brought up from Mexico because they have a slightly different variety there and have perfected a technique to get them to sprout new pads. You can harvest pads from the prickly pear in Tucson in the spring, when they're new and fresh, but later in the year they become tough and fibrous.

While she was sauteing the diced cactus, she also passed around a plate with the raw plant and suggested that we taste it. I was surprised at the flavor. In addition to the usual "green vegetable" taste, there was a tartness that reminded me of lemon. It was actually quite good raw.

When the nopalitos were cooked to a dark olive green, she added them to a French green lentil salad. This also had peppers, onions, carrots, and herbs and was topped with a hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar dressing and feta cheese. It was delicious!

Another dish she made was tepary-basil appetizer. Tepary is a kind of bean and you can use it like most dried beans. You can also grow your own easily in the summer. The tepary plant is adapted to the monsoon season. If you plant before the monsoon season starts, it flowers with the rain and produces beans before the weather turns dry again. The dried beans have to be soaked and cooked for a long time. She had done that before the class. She showed us how she put the cooked beans and fresh basil in a food processor with seasonings. The paste was spread on crisp bread rounds, then topped with either a sun-dried tomato or olive tapenade. The red and green toppings made this a festive looking appetizer for Christmas.

She made some meatballs with a sauce based on prickly pear fruit syrup and brought some holiday bars made with mesquite meal. There was also a salad with a prickly pear dressing. After the demonstration was over, we each filled a paper plate with the different foods to sample.

An interesting fact is that at least two of these native foods are good for keeping blood sugar under control and combating non-insulin dependent diabetes. I'd heard that about mesquite flour, but it's also true of the prickly pear pads. I believe I mentioned this when I went to the saguarro harvest at Colossal Cave Mountain Park earlier this year. It's more reinforcement for eating natural, native foods.

If you want to see what some of these dishes look like, here's the promotional video for the book.

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