Mesquite, the nectar of the Sonora

Mesquite, the Nectar of the Sonora

In the midst of a dry, unforgivable, heat scorched landscape, there it stands, the mesquite tree, in all of its mystical glory, begging you to pick its golden pods. Each elongated pod carries with it the rich heritage of the natives of the Southwest, who used this wonderful desert plant for sustenance. Its flavors can carry you back to a time when nature dictated the rhythm of life.

The kiawe tree, as it is known in Hawaii, and the huarango tree, as it is known in Peru is the source of the best tasting mesquite beans ever. These are so very delicious.

To most Americans, Mesquite usually just means charcoal. Few know the sweet, unique flavor of Mesquite pods. Could it be a mere coincidence, or is it truly a reflection of the differences in between native cultures listening to the rhythms of the desert, and western man who seems to have all but cut off his umbilical cord from the web of life that sustains him. Perhaps it is this symbolism that makes Mesquite a doorway to escape the crazed pace of modern life and reaffirm our ties to the land, even if it is just for a moment.

If you have ever worked with Carob pods, then processing Mesquite pods will be quite familiar. Much like Carob, the sweet part of the fruit is the pod, the seeds are very hard and in home processing, they are usually discarded. One can substitute Mesquite for Carob in just about any recipe. Below is a set of recipes that will show you how to make some delicious delights, including mesquite molasses, jelly, flour and bread. There's also a recipe for the Atole de Pechita, similar to what the Pima natives used to make.

The botanical name for the preferred culinary mesquite of the desert Southwest is prosopis julifera, but there are other species in the prosopis family that also produce mesquite beans.prosopis glandulaosa is known as the honey mesquite, prosopis velutina is the velvet mesquite, and prosopis pubescens is the screwbean mesquite. Yet other species of mesquite include p. laevigata, p. pallida, p. chilensis, and p. tamarugo. Not unlike many rare fruits, mesquite also has many different variations that could make up a beautiful collection. But let's not get lost in the botany of mesquite, it's a long and extensive topic that could take up an entire 500 page book.

The best mesquite beans I've ever tasted grew in Hawaii. Just north of Lahaina, right on the water in between downtown and the large row of mega hotels to the north is a row of kiawe trees. The kiawe tree is prosopis pallida, also known as the huarango tree in Peru. (It's also known as American carob, as well as "algarrobo blanco", leading to confusion with Prosopis alba. P. pallida produces long yellow beans that are delicious even before they harden. They make a bright yellow mesquite flour that is simply amazing. P. pallida is the source of the best tasting mesquite beans ever, and seems to also have the widest adaptability to less arid, more humid subtropical climates. If you look for mesquite flour, the tastiest mesquite flour comes from Peru because it's made from algarrobo blanco. And you can tell, because it will be bright yellow instead of dull yellow.

In general, mesquite prefers arid desert areas, washes, and dry plains. As long as it's deep roots can reach ample supplies of ground water, mesquite can thrive in inferno style heat that would not be hospitable to humans. I've often wondered if mesquite could actually grow in a cool heat deprived climate like Santa Cruz, my guess is it would not produce very good fruit. But as with all rare fruits, one should never make any assumptions. My intuition tells me that the kiawe tree, Prosopis alba would thrive in the hotter Northern California interior, and without a doubt throughout the Southern part of the state.

One of the questions that remains unanswered for me is why didn't native American cultures create an agriculture around mesquite much like humans used grain in the middle East? Between corn and mesquite, both of which are adapted to desert climate, native Americans would have had a nearly perfect source of protein. Native Tribes indeed used Mesquite for culinary purposes, among others that included the Pima, Papago, Yuma, and Seri. But none actually cultivated the mesquite bean. No selections and improvements were made, and today, the mesquite still remains an essentially wild tree.

If you want to read about Mesquite, I highly recommend Gary Nahban's book, Gathering the Desert. He is a wonderful writer. This is the book that got me fascinated with the foods coming out of the desert. I've never looked at deserts in the same way since. Since reading this book, I've used mesquite in many different recipes. but my favorite so far is mesquite syrup, which one can actually buy.

Gary Nahban's book "Gathering the Desert" is truly insiprational. You will never again look a the desert in the same way. He does an amazing job of connecting his audience with the richness of the heritage of the native Southwestern cutltures that once roamed the dry lands. "

Gary also has his own blog, which I highly recommend you visit: http://garynabhan.com

But enough about trivia. Let's get to the real meat of the subject: food! Here are some yummy mesquite recipes, enjoy!

Mesquite Molasses (Also known as Algarobo Syrup)

  • 1 lbs Washed Mesquite Pods</li>
  • 1 gallon water</li>
  • break up pods and mix with the water
  • simmer in a crock pot for 12 hours
  • strain
  • Grind up left overs in food processor and mix with liquid again
  • Boil again for 10 minutes
  • Strain and dispose of solids (Use a cheese cloth or fine mesh)
  • Gently boil strained liquid until it has a thin syrupy consistency
  • Let cool. The syup should then thicken as it cools

Mesquite Jelly

  • 1 lbs Washed Mesquite Pods
  • 1 gallon water
  • break up pods and mix with the water
  • simmer in a crock pot for 12 hours
  • strain
  • Grind up left overs in food processor and mix with liquid again
  • Boil again for 10 minutes
  • Strain and dispose of solids (Use a cheese cloth or fine mesh)
  • Add 1 lemon and 1 package of fruit pectin
  • Add sugar if not sweet enough
  • Boil liquid for 5 minutes at low heat
  • Let cool. The liquid should gel as it cools

Atole De Pechita (Gila River Pima)

(We like to call this Mesquite Milk, because the preparation is similar to making soy milk)

  • 1/2 lbs dry washed, broken up Mesquite pods
  • Cover with water in a pot and bring to a boil,
  • reduce heat, and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours
  • Separate pods and liquid by straining
  • Grind strained pods in a food processor (Hard pits will not break up, which is ok)
  • Mix ground up pods back with liquid
  • Simmer for 1/2 to 1 hour
  • Remove and disard pits and remaining pods by straining liquid.
  • Sweeten and flavor remaining liquid as you like

Mesquite Flour

Because the seeds inside the pods are so hard, grinding them straight is not an option unless you have a hammer mill. Thus, one has to first remove the seeds before milling. The seeds are the main contributor of protein to any mesquite flour, but they also contribute a bit of a bitter aftertaste. The pods are what contains the sweet taste.

  • Remove seeds (Unless you have a mill that handles the seeds)
  • Toast in oven or 40 minutes at 250 deg F
  • Mill using your favorite mill
  • Sift through 45 mesh and then through 100 mesh for a nicer flour.

Sonora Delight Bread Recipe (Makes 2 lbs loaf)

  • 1 cup + 2 TBS warm water
  • 1 cup Mesquite flour
  • 3 cups unbleached white flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • Use normal setting on your bread machine.