Amy Valdés Schwemm says that her favorite way of exposing people to the wild and native foods of the desert is the least pretentious one: a potluck in the yard, the kind with paper plates piled high with food from big pots on the stove.
Valdés Schwemm, founder of Tucson-based Mano Y Metate Mole, is one-fifth of the blog Savor the Southwest. Tucson wild foods writer Carolyn Niethammer (author of The Prickly Pear Cookbook and American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest, among other books) assembled the blog’s contributors: Valdés Schwemm, Linda McKittrick, Martha Ames Burgess, and Jacqueline Soule. In a food blogging landscape that is increasingly populated with hyper-stylized photos and a just-out-of reach sense of perfection, Savor the Southwest is refreshingly approachable. It feels like that potluck in the yard or a notebook passed between friends, albeit brilliant friends with numerous years of experience raising, foraging, growing, and cooking wild foods in Tucson and the borderlands. They create recipes like White Sonoran Wheat and Mesquite Pie Crust, Purslane Tostadas, and Sweet and Sour I’itoi onions that put potentially unfamiliar ingredients in highly approachable contexts.
The group has a fierce ethic of meeting people where they are, at times quite literally. “I was at Kohl’s the other day and there were barrel cactus planted all the way around the parking lot,” says Soule, author of Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening. She grabbed a shopping bag from her car and started to harvest the fruit, which are filled with tiny black seeds that she uses like poppy seeds as an addition to baked goods. “Two people stopped and asked what I was doing and I told them,” she says. “I split one open and fed them the seed and they said, ‘Wow, this is crunchy! This is good.’ If we could just get people to think about eating out of their front yard because there are a lot of barrels in front yards!”
McKittrick, who spent time as a social worker and now ranches in the foothills of the Sierra Madres in Northern Mexico and keeps bees in Tucson, highlights the accessibility of these foods: “Go out into your yard and most likely, no matter where you live in Tucson, you’ll have a mesquite tree, prickly pear, or cholla. It’s there for all.”
Valdés Schwemm talks about helping folks who may not be entirely comfortable in the kitchen find “accessible starting points” to wild and native foods. “I really know you don’t cook,” she says. “And so what I’m going to do is, I’m going to tell you to put these cholla buds on top of the pizza that you bought. We’re talking about baby steps here.” She encourages people to identify small but worthwhile amounts of time and effort that can help open the door to eating from the overgrown prickly pear they pass on their walk to work or the mesquite tree in their yard. Burgess, an ethnobotanist who was mentored by Tohono O’odham elders, tells people to put heirloom beans, such as tepary beans, in a crockpot and go to work. When they’re done cooking, she suggests portioning them out, freezing them, and getting to know the ingredient by making something different with each portion.
A big part of the “why” at the heart of these practical steps to incorporating desert foods into everyday meals is largely ineffable. “There’s something deeply soul satisfying to walk up a wash and pick hackberries and pop them into my mouth,” says Niethammer. “I mean, it’s such a simple thing, but I just like it so much. It’s somehow so meaningful.” There’s a sense of relentless joy at what’s in front of you that’s apparent not only when the women talk about eating from the desert, but also eating seasonally. “It’s a matter of being so overwhelmed and excited and inspired by the produce that we have right now that we forgot about lettuce,” says Valdés Schwemm.
“It’s bigger than just the act of eating” says Burgess. “I’ve been hit with a vision of the landscape when I eat something. It sounds hokey to say this, but I’ve had times when I not only felt like I was eating the landscape, but I was ingesting tradition or time.”
Burgess recalls teaching classes about edible plants at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and encouraging students to use all of their senses, but especially taste. She calls it “assimilating the desert” and says that enjoying food from the desert helped open the students up to seeing other things like ecological relationships.
One of the ways McKittrick talks about eating wild foods is in terms of engagement. “Our awareness is hijacked a lot, so it’s wonderful to really taste what’s going on in your food,” she says. “It’s just a different way of waking up.” There’s also the potential for a large-scale, tangible impact in noticing the nuances in food across geography and the seasons. “We’ll take care of what we feel connected to,” she says. Like Burgess, she suggests that eating from the desert is a profound means of engaging with time and tradition.
“Every time I put my hand on a chiltepin, I think of hands that—roughly 9,000 years ago—picked chiltepin,” says McKittrick. “Every time.”
A beautiful thing about this recipe of McKittrick’s is that it encourages variety. It’s an unaged, fresh cheese that is simply yogurt strained overnight. It ends up about the thickness of soft goat cheese or cream cheese and is good all the places those cheeses are. When I spoke to the women, Soule had just used this recipe in a class she had taught on cooking with fresh herbs. On the blog, McKittrick writes about incorporating arugula flowers in the cheese. When I made this in my kitchen, a call to my gardener friend Mary yielded some beautiful pink rose geranium flowers and Chinese chives. I stirred the rose geranium flowers in with the chiltepin and made another batch with chopped fresh Chinese chives. I’m looking forward to making this throughout the year, incorporating different herbs as they are in season and trying goat and sheep’s milk yogurt, as McKittrick suggests.
“My mom’s dad was a great forager,” says Valdés Schwemm. He taught her to harvest “things like the wild amaranth greens—we call them quelites—or the verdulagas, the purslane.” She grew up in Arizona eating mesquite beans right off the tree, but during the summers her grandfather would take the family to where he grew up in Northern New Mexico to pick chokecherries. If quelites aren’t in season, any kind of green will work here.
This recipe features Valdés Schwemm’s Mole Dulce, which is available in Tucson at Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Food Conspiracy Co-op.
Gluten-free Mesquite Muffin
A Sonoran Desert version of the popular microwave mug recipes, this recipe of Soule’s is a great accessible starting point for experimenting with mesquite flour. Soule discovered by accident that aluminum-free baking powder worked best here to help make the finished product less bitter. You could stir in barrel cactus seeds for added crunch. Soule points out that, just like different tomatoes taste different, mesquite trees taste different. She suggests sampling and finding one that you like. I found this recipe to be not very sweet, so I think it works well as a savory bread, too, alongside soup, for example.
Soule notes that you can easily quadruple this recipe and cook it for 3½ minutes in a microwave safe loaf pan for a loaf cake.
Niethammer says she’s never sure how many people cook her recipes, but “whether they do it or not is kind of irrelevant.” She explains, “If you went on a hike and you saw a mesquite tree, you would say, ‘Oh, this could make bread.’ It gives you a relationship to that plant whether or not you were actually cooking it.” Niethammer is quick to point out that although you can certainly buy mesquite flour, it’s terribly cheap and easy to mill your own. “There’s no reason that any one person in Tucson can’t gather a five-gallon paint bucket of mesquite pods and take it to be ground for $7,” she says. “So you get a gallon of mesquite flour for $7.”
I added the optional chocolate chips here and because I can’t eat gluten, substituted a gluten-free all-purpose flour for the regular flour with great success.
Just as Burgess suggests making a large batch of heirloom beans in the crockpot and freezing small batches for future experimentation, this recipe of Burgess’ encourages the cook to adapt it for their own kitchen. In the warmer months, or when you want leftovers, she suggests refrigerating the salad. This is one of those recipes that would be ideal to have in your arsenal to dispatch with whatever is still in the crisper at the end of the week, before the next CSA pickup.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer and Punch. She’s the author of Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before.