During the hot summer months, farmers in our region must choose desert-adapted, heat-tolerant crops carefully to be successful. These include indigenous crops like chiles and squash as well as plants from regions around the world with extreme summer conditions.
“Many of the plants that we grow are from heirloom seed, grown by Tohono O’odham farmers and other groups in the region for generations,” says Cie’na Schlaefli, the farm manager at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. “We work with Native Seeds/SEARCH and other local plant breeders to select new desert adapted plants for trials.”
This year the farm is expanding its green chile crop, with seed from Ed Curry, a longtime Arizonan and chile plant breeder. The co-op farm also grows serranos, chiltepins, and other hot peppers as well as heirloom Tohono O’odham canary melons, yellow flesh watermelons, and squash.
The co-op farm produces a distinct Sonoran Desert staple that is growing in popularity: mesquite flour. The flour, from pods harvested sometime in June, has a rich molasses taste. Because of its natural sweetness, it is delicious added to baked goods and pancake batters if you want to cut back on sugar. The co-op works with local community members through the Wild Foods Community Harvest Program to share knowledge about how to harvest, process and prepare traditional wild Sonoran Desert foods. The mesquite pods are harvested by community members from trees selected for their sweetness, which varies from tree to tree. The farm has a hammermill onsite that allows them to mill the pods into meal.
“The date the flour is available depends on the weather,” says Schlaefli. “The milling has to be done on a relatively dry day, or the sugars in the mesquite will be too sticky.” Along with mesquite flour, the farm sells other dry goods like whole and milled grains, bean mixes, and dried cholla buds. Fresh produce and dried goods are available at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market at Mercado San Agustín as well as at the farm store, located at 8100 S. Oidak Wog.
Folks with backyard chickens might want to head out to the store to shop so they can pick up locally produced chicken scratch from the farm. “The scratch is a supplemental feed blend that we make using the grain, mesquite, and bean debris left over from our milling process,” says Schlaefli.
In summer, in addition to native desert crops, farmers’ market shoppers will find produce with origins in hot and/or arid regions around the world. Watermelon, okra, eggplant, and cultivated purslane (verdolagas) are some of the most heat-tolerant fruits and vegetables and have a long history of cultivation in the desert regions of Africa, the Middle East, and India.
Okra, originally from Africa, seems to actually thrive during our hottest months. As one of the easiest crops to save for seeds, many farmers in the region have been growing their preferred variety of okra for years, even decades. At markets you will see both long and squat okra in bright green or shades of red. There are many ways to use this tasty and highly nutritious vegetable. Okra is notorious for being slimy, but cooking it whole minimizes that quality. Perhaps the simplest way to eat okra is to blanch whole pods in a pot of boiling water for 60 to 90 seconds. Drain the okra, sprinkle liberally with salt, and serve immediately for a surprisingly delicious snack. Whole pods, tossed with a bit of salt and oil and seasoned with a Cajun or curry spice mix, are excellent grilled, broiled, or pan fried. Okra also makes phenomenal pickles. In stews like gumbo, chopped okra is traditionally used as a thickener and it makes a good addition to a saucy dish or stirred into scrambled eggs.
There are a variety of unusual, heat-tolerant greens available at markets during the summer. Amaranth greens, malabar spinach, purslane, sweet potato greens, and even squash leaves are some of the stranger looking—but very tasty—greens usually offered. They are all fairly mild tasting and make a good substitute for kale or spinach in cooked recipes.
The succulent leaves and stems of purslane are great either raw or cooked. If you crave the cool green crunch of lettuce during the summer, sprouts are a good substitute. Sellers at markets offer several varieties, including large sunflower sprouts and pea shoots as well as microgreens that range from spicy to sweet. The sprouts can stand in for lettuce in salads and sandwiches and make a great fresh addition to a bowl of veggies and rice.
Sprouts are often available at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market consignment table and from Amy’s Raw Kitchen at the Sunday Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park. “Since they don’t require a lot of space and don’t take long to grow, they can be grown year-round in the protection of an indoor temperature controlled space,” says Amy Mortier, the owner of Amy’s Raw Kitchen. “At the market I can cut them fresh from the trays and keep precut ones bagged in coolers.” The heat is still challenging because they are so delicate. “Customers should have a cooler in their vehicle for their produce and come early,” Amy says. ✜
You can use almost any vegetable in fried rice. If you start with leftover cooked rice you can have a quick meal in a matter of minutes, without heating up the kitchen too much. If you want a vegetarian dish, just omit the sausage.
You can substitute mesquite flour for one-fourth of the regular flour in many cookie or muffin recipes with good results. These mesquite pancakes are perfect topped with some sliced summer peaches and whipped cream.
Sara Jones is a longtime employee of the Tucson CSA.