Baja Arizona’s diverse microclimates create extremely specific growing conditions not only for wild flora and fauna but also for domesticated crops and livestock. Distinct soil compositions, seasonally shifting winds, fluctuating rainfall patterns, and dramatically vacillating night and daytime temperatures carve niches that vary even acre-by-acre. Environmental conditions select for particularly well-adapted species of plants and animals, and adamantly against everything unfit.
Just as with wine, when we taste a plant or animal that is perfectly adapted to a specific place, we can sense its native soil’s minerality, the herbaceous vegetation it foraged on or grew around, and even, some would say, the aridity of the climate it grew in.
It takes a patient farmer to figure out an ideal variety of livestock or crop that will thrive in his or her slice of Baja Arizona. Kyle Young in Arivaca bred his Gila chickens to adapt to an ecosystem very different from where Thad Koehn raises his free-range pigs near Willcox. That is a terrain very different from where Chris Stross grows up to 20 kinds of garlic, right on the Tanque Verde Wash in eastern Tucson.
Each of them also raises other foods, but these varietals represent their landscapes and adaptability.
Kyle Young of Erda Kroft Farm crossed four hardy and rare chicken breeds over and over again, selecting for resilience and intelligence, until his own Gila chicken breed was perfected.
He sought a medium-large chicken that was ideally adapted to the summer heat and winter chill of the desert Southwest—a dual-purpose egg-layer that yielded flavorful meat. Instead of eating genetically modified soy and corn while constrained in coops, the chickens consume native grassland leaves, legumes, beetles, and grubs.
“A healthy animal is going to taste much better than a nonhealthy animal,” said Young, “and an animal’s taste reflects the terroir much more than it reflects the breed. The Gila chicken tastes how a chicken raised on my farm should taste.”
Gila chickens are also particularly flavorful birds because they’re some of the savviest fowl around. Their mothers teach them survival skills necessary to roam free: They must learn to hunt for the best available grubs and grasshoppers, or they won’t be able to compete for food. Plus, the abundant grasshoppers on Young’s land are full of beta carotene, which makes the birds delicious and healthy, and their egg yolks extra orange.
The texture of their carcasses isn’t soft and buttery like commercially farmed chicken, Young said. Instead, they’re firm, representing the smell, taste, and chew of real food uncommon in our industrial food system. “The Gila chicken meat is much darker in color because the bird ate higher quality protein,” Young added. “If people want vegetarian chicken or eggs, they’re missing out on nutrition. Bigger chickens like the Gila even eat rodents, which add omega-3 fatty acids.”
As Young said, to evoke the flavor of a Gila chicken, “take a chicken from the grocery store, subtract the bland, and add richness.”
Young sells chickens of all ages as well as eggs in Arivaca by word of mouth, and it doesn’t take him long to run out. On the rare occasion that he has too many eggs, he sells them at Health is Wealth Vitamins in Green Valley and occasionally in the store at Three Points Restaurant on Sasabe Highway closer to Tucson proper.
To cook a Gila chicken:
Young prepares birds according to type and age.
Roosters need to be eaten, and one of his preferred ways to cook them is to stuff the bird with mirepoix, mushrooms, and Southwest flavors like partially cooked amaranth grains and whole chiles from his garden. Then he places the bird in a deep, unglazed oval lidded pot. He slow roasts it at 200-250 degrees in his Celtic-style chimneyless outdoor oven “until it’s finished” (about 3½ hours, but check its doneness starting at 2). A little reddish fluid in the bottom of the pot is normal and can be the base for gravy.
He likes to fry younger birds “like mom did,” he said. She cut them into pieces and shook them in a paper bag with flour (gluten-free substitutes are O.K., he noted) with salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, and sage. Then she fried the bird pieces in lard. A gravy can consist of bone stock thickened with coconut flour, arrowroot powder, and chia seeds, and seasoned with turmeric, red chile powder or paprika, and salt.
Old hens, on the other hand, are stew birds that mostly become stock. He cooks them in water until tender—about 8-12 hours—skimming off the collagen, which he spreads on bread like butter. He uses their tougher meat for chicken salad.
Erda Kroft Farm. ErdaKroft.com.
Scott Koehn moved his family from the state of Kansas to the high desert of Kansas Settlement near Willcox about 25 years ago. There, he began farming cereal grains, hay, and cotton as he did in his native Midwest.
Ten years later, his son Josh started raising sustainably pastured beef and chickens in the adjacent fields. In 2014, his brother Thad joined him. Today, the brothers maintain the fields’ natural ecological diversity and provide ample pastureland and ethically raised sheep, turkeys, and pigs.
Most pigs raised to be eaten in the United States suffer terribly, seldom leaving their pens, rutting in their own waste; some never see the light of day before they are slaughtered. Many farms in Baja Arizona do raise meat ethically, but few raise pigs, especially pigs that can spend 100 percent of their time outdoors. At any given time of year, the brothers have about 30 pigs of varying ages, and they aim to produce a total of 200 per year.
The brothers let their animals take their time maturing, never giving them antibiotics or growth hormones. It has been a while since Koehn has eaten commercial meat, he said, but he remembers the difference between his and the pork typically available.
“A big difference is the texture of the meat. It has largely to do with the forage, not so much the climate. The rain usually goes around us in the Valley anyway,” Koehn said. But unlike industrial pigs, he says “they aren’t living in their muck. The texture is firmer. Commercial pork is mushier and lacks texture but ours isn’t tough.” The farm’s microclimate is stable compared to the rest of Baja Arizona, which gives consistency to the taste of the meat.
Another flavor difference is that commercial pork is bred to be very lean, whereas the brothers’ maintains some fat. “The fat is one thing that makes it very good. We don’t want to raise the lean hog. Some of the flavor comes from the fat,” Koehn said.
To cook a Chiricahua Pasture-Raised Meats pig:
Koehn said he prefers pork belly over all other cuts. He suggests slicing it like bacon, marinating it overnight with equal amounts of salt and brown sugar, and frying it like bacon for breakfast. (In fact, pork belly, bacon, and pancetta are the same cut: bacon is cured, pork belly is smoked, and pancetta is cured with herbs.)
He also likes a pork chop now and again. One way to cook a free-range pork chop is to preheat the oven to 400 degrees. While the oven is heating, make aluminum foil squares large enough to wrap each piece of meat, and rub each chop with 1 tablespoon olive oil, ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, and lemon pepper to taste. Do not add salt because it toughens the meat. Carefully wrap the foil around the chops and evenly space them on a cookie sheet. Put the sheet on the middle rack in the oven. After 35 minutes, unwrap the foil to check for an internal temperature of 145 degrees; if the chop is not hot enough, check again after five minutes.
Chiricahua Pasture-Raised Meats delivers butchered pork to members of Tucson Community Supported Agriculture at 300 E. University Blvd. some Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They also deliver individual pick-ups to three Tucson parks to customers who preorder up to three days beforehand.
Chiricahua Pasture Raised Meats. CPRMeats.com.
Until 2013, Chris Stross and his wife, Elizabeth, grew a variety of crops like tomatoes, corn, beans, garlic, herbs, and squash on the banks of the Tanque Verde Wash near Speedway and Houghton roads. But since Elizabeth died, all 77-year-old Chris has the energy to tend is their organically grown garlic.
The 20 varieties of garlic he collected from all over the world, that is.
The wash’s microclimate conditions swing back and forth so dramatically that Stross said he cannot grow typical Tucson plants like bougainvillea or bird of paradise. However, he has had success with garlic varietals originating in cold, wet climates as distant as Russia, the Republic of Georgia, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Washington State’s border with Canada. Stross said he is not sure why so many varieties thrive in his beds while others simply refuse, even though the protesters are so genetically similar to their productive cousins.
A variety particularly adapted to his land is the Valdour softneck from the Dordogne region of France. Yet unlike the pendulum-like microclimate where Stross lives, the Dordogne has predictable, calm weather patterns, and the garlic tastes mild – almost as if it doesn’t have to struggle to survive. As such, it lends itself to a range of cuisines.
Stross’ garlic is ready to lift from the soil in June when the shoots have five or six green leaves. After a laborious drying process, he sells it at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park beginning in August. He charges $12 per pound (about one-third of what mail order catalogs charge for smaller bulbs).
To cook a batch of skordalia with Mariposa Market Gardens garlic:
Mix mashed potatoes, crushed Valdour garlic, salt, olive oil, and vinegar. (Ask Stross how much of each ingredient to add, and he’ll respond: “Enough.”) His actual recipe asks for 1 potato, 3 cloves of crushed garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ cup of olive oil, and about 2 teaspoons vinegar. Blend using a handheld blender. The garlic won’t overpower the dish. Rather, it occurs as a pleasant hint of heat in what can be used as a spread or a dip. ✜
Mariposa Market Gardens. 520.906.9293.
Angela Orlando is a cultural anthropologist who is passionate about the Sonoran Desert, indigenous foodways, and talking with people about cooking and eating.