Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Foraging in the Desert: Mesquite

This time of year, the desert is home to a delicious, nutritious, and abundant food: mesquite. This time of year, the desert is also VERY HOT. Around San Diego, the attitude seems to be "don't go there in the summer unless you have to." And I'm the first to admit that the heat is highly unpleasant. But people live in Arizona, where it's equally miserable or worse every day. And there's plenty of mesquite to be had in Arizona. I decided to see if I could get some mesquite from our desert here.

It's a naturally sweet legume with an edible pod and it's healthy. Mesquite flour is stupid expensive too - about $13/lb. I might as well go get some for free!

A Tucson-based group called Desert Harvesters has a fantastic resource on mesquite that I highly recommend. They offer recipes, but even more important, they help foragers distinguish between what's OK to eat and what's not - and that's a bit more complex than you might guess. (Moldy pod = bad. Pod that a beetle hatched out of = totally OK.)

When people talk about the desert in San Diego, they often talk about Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Of course, you're not allowed to forage within the park. But at least the park is a starting point for finding me some desert, right?

The website has a link to the weather forecast. A few weeks ago, Anza Borrego had a "cool" day with a high of "only" 96F. That was my chance! If you're visiting the desert in the middle of the summer, you might as well take your days with double-digit temps when you can get them.

Before definitely deciding to go, I tried looking up what I could about the park, how to get there, how to avoid a wildfire that was burning, and how to find mesquite. The park is huge so I could take any number of different highways and enter at different points, some very far away from one another.

I decided to take the 8 to the 79 to the 78 (how's that for some Southern California-ese). The route went east from San Diego, up into the mountains, then continued north (still in the mountains, at about 4000 feet), and finally descended into the desert only at the very end of the trip. I did not realize from the map that this meant lots of winding roads with great scenery but slow speed limits. But I was more than happy to check out the pines and black oaks as I drove, and I loved the 75F weather.

I left in late afternoon, planning to enjoy cool mountain weather until the very, very end, when I would drop down into the desert at 6pm to put up with just a few hours of nasty hot temps as the sun went down. Then I'd have just 2 hours before sundown to get my mesquite and leave. I hoped to find a spot outside the borders of the park with some mesquite.

I had two clues about where within Anza Borrego to find mesquite. One was the Yaqui Wells trail, a short trail that takes just 30 minutes to hike. Mesquite likes to grow near water, and the hike takes you to a spot with water and mesquite. You're also supposed to find a bird called a Phainopepla that eats the berries of Desert Mistletoe. I wouldn't be allowed to harvest the mesquite at Yaqui Wells, but at least I could go there and see it to make sure I was identifying the plant properly.

My second clue was the Borrego Valley Sink, which I couldn't quite plot on the map. But it looked like it might be within this little island of "Not State Park" surrounding the city of Borrego Springs. It's this strange little island within the state park and it's not part of the park. Which means I could legally forage there, right? The Borrego Valley Sink is supposedly home to a Mesquite Bosque. A second map I looked at later makes it look more like the Borrego Valley Sink does fall within the park. I never actually found the Mesquite Bosque, so I couldn't tell you.

I packed the car with lots of water and a bit of emergency gear in case I had car trouble in the desert, food for dinner, and large containers to collect mesquite in. Then off I went.

In addition to mesquite, I also had my eye out for pine nuts. We've got several different kinds of pine trees within San Diego, and three of them produce edible pine nuts around this time of year. One, the Torrey Pine, has its needles in clusters of five, and you find that on the coast. Fat chance harvesting those nuts, since they are all protected. The other two, the Single-Leaf Pinyon Pine and the Four Leaf Pinyon, grow up in the mountains. I've found the Single Leaf in Joshua Tree at the Black Rock campsite. So where are the Four Leaf Pinyons?

As I headed north on the 79 toward Julian, I saw plenty of pines. And every single one had its needles in groups of three, not four. Some were Jeffrey pines, some were Coulter pines. None were Pinyon pines. Darn, darn, darn!

Fortunately, I did spot TONS of black oaks... and those produce the tastiest acorns in San Diego county. Maybe if I time it right, I can make one trip up there in the fall to pick apples and forage acorns :)

I was barely out of Julian, the mountain town famous around here for growing apples, when I spotted what looked like a mesquite tree:

There's not a lot you can confuse mesquite with. Compound pinnate (feather-like) leaves, large thorns, and bean-like pods. It must be a mesquite. I tasted a pod... and spat it out. Gross!! What the heck was that?? It didn't taste like a mesquite.

I stopped several times and tasted mesquite-looking-like pods several times... with the same result each time. (Note: the pods were all green, as in the photo above.)

There is one other leguminous tree that grows here, and that's a Cat's Claw Acacia. It can be used medicinally. And I know what it looks like, so I wouldn't mix it up with a mesquite. I found one and snapped a pic of it:

Cat's Claw Acacia

The cat's claw-shaped thorns for which it was named

Finally, I was truly out of the mountains and down on the desert floor. The view was stunning, although my cheap, lousy camera could not do it justice:

I was not officially in Anza Borrego yet, and there was plenty of mesquite on both sides of the highway. Only, it still didn't taste like mesquite. What was going on?

I decided to drive to the Yaqui Wells trail. It's a short, interpretive trail with signs identifying all of the plants. Including mesquite.

Only I passed it. I realized my error when I hit Yaqui Pass Rd, which leads you into Borrego Springs. Well, I thought, maybe I'll go there. I can get a bite to eat, use a bathroom, ask around about the mesquite... maybe even get a tip on where to find that mesquite bosque.

As I drove into Borrego Springs, I saw nothing on both sides of me except desert plants like cholla and ocotillo. No mesquite. No restaurants either. Or bathrooms. I saw houses and a medical center but nothing that looked like a town. I kept driving farther, thinking I would come to a main street or something, but no. And the sun was setting.

I checked the directions to Yaqui Wells trail once again, turned around, and then sped toward it. It's near the Tamarisk Campground, which I had passed on the way in. I drove back there and looked for the trail. No trail. The campground was closed for the summer. Finally, I spotted another trail across the street. I checked my map, and used that as a reference point to find the trail I sought.

I parked the car, now a bit flustered that time was running out, and started the short hike. I picked up an interpretive brochure and walked to the first stop on the trail:

I looked up #3 in the brochure while thinking "Please don't be mesquite." Because this is the same plant I'd been tasting for the last hour, and none of the ones I'd tasted were any good. Or anything like the mesquite taste I was familiar with.

But #3 was mesquite. Honey mesquite. The brochure told how it was an important food source for the Kumeyaay Indians. This plant had the telltale long thorns... but no pods. Or, wait! One pod. I tasted it. It tasted bad.

Mesquite thorns

One sad mesquite pod

Nearby, I found more mesquite with tons of pods on the ground. I tasted one of those too. It did not taste good either.

Oh what was wrong with me, and why did I decide to shlep out to the desert in July??

Finally, as I drove back out of the park, I found a huge tree down in a canyon that was FULL of mesquite pods. Well, no matter how it tasted, I was determined to collect some. Maybe it'd taste better later after it dried?

I climbed down to it and - strangely - I actually saw a cattail down there. There really is some water in the desert, I guess. Then I tasted a pod. And it tasted GOOD! It tasted like mesquite!

So I filled up my whole laundry basket:

Then I got back in my car and left. And, while I was harvesting, I did see that bird you're supposed to see in this part of the desert, the Phainopepla. And I heard a Great Horned Owl, which put a smile on my face.

Back home, I checked the Desert Harvesters website. Apparently, each mesquite tree tastes a bit different, so you do need to taste before you harvest in order to find a good one. It appears that before they dry, the pods taste terrible across the board too. That's why the green ones I found first were so bad.

Pods might look perfect, or they can have any one of three blemishes or problems. If they have any mold on them, toss them out. If they have holes in them or if some of the outside has been stripped off by a bird, that's OK.

There's a bug that hatches inside the mesquite pod and then makes a hole in the pod to exit it. When you find the pods with holes, the bugs are already gone. But it's a good bet that there are more bugs yet to hatch and escape. You can either lay the pods out to let the bugs leave of their own accord, or you can take action to kill the bugs (like heating the pods in the oven).

Once I got them home, I laid my pods out on a blanket. I was hoping to sort out the dry ones and toast them in the oven to kill the remaining bugs. I tried that twice and burnt a few mesquite pods each time. Guess I won't try that again.

My next step was figuring out how to grind the mesquite into powder. The Indians grind them by hand using rocks and that's a lot of work. In Tucson, Desert Harvesters has a mill that will do it for you very quickly. My first idea was using a friend's Vitamix. They were very kind to let me try. It was a total failure.

Even the pods that seemed dry weren't dry enough to grind. I put them in a pan on my friend's stove and stirred them around more as they roasted and dried. Then I put them back in the Vitamix. I tried grinding them for maybe an hour. It just wasn't working. The outside of the pods will grind. The beans on the inside - if you can get to them - will grind. But in between, there's this hard casing on each of the beans that does not want to grind.

You end up with a partially ground pod that looks like this:

Finally, I gave up, cleaned my friend's Vitamix, and came home. Then I got to work with my coffee grinder. It was a ridiculously stupid amount of work, to grind it in small batches, then sift it, then grind again, then sift. But eventually, I got a cup and a half of flour.

I mixed it with two eggs (and nothing else):

And attempted to bake it into cookies in the oven. When that didn't really seem to do the trick, I finished them off on the stove top. They looked like little falafels:

All in all, I made 10 cookies. I ate about 4 that first day. And I learned a few lessons. First, for flavor and texture, I recommend adding a few other ingredients to your mesquite cookies. Mesquite alone has too strong a flavor. It's naturally sweet, but it would be nice to tone down the flavor by mixing it with wheat flour. Next time I'll do 3/4 c. whole wheat per 1/4 c. mesquite. If you'd like to make something besides cookies, check the Desert Harvesters website for recipes and a cookbook they sell called Eat Mesquite.

That night, I learned another lesson. My gut flora held a big party and produced some of the nastiest smelling gas I have ever, EVER smelled. Unfortunately, I was with my friend Kathleen when the first one came out and it was so bad she commented. She told me it got about an 8.5 out of 10, with 10 being so bad it burns your nose hair off. Thankfully, we finished our hike and parted ways so that I was alone to suffer through the rest of it. So let my experience be a lesson to you: don't eat four mesquite cookies in one day!

I've still got plenty of mesquite pods left, still drying on my living room floor. My next attempt to deal with them will involve a grain mill. The only other option I can envision involves sending them to the kind folks of Desert Harvesters in Tucson so they can mill them.

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