Abundant, accessible local food doesn’t have to be a mirage, even in the desert. Tucson-based Desert Harvesters teaches Arizonans about mesquite, a legume native to the arid Southwest. Despite the tree’s ubiquity, “most people had no idea that it was food,” says Brad Lancaster, the nonprofit’s cofounder. Mesquite pods and seeds are multipurpose: Ground them up to make a sugary, gluten-free flour perfect for pancakes; drizzle those with honey derived from the tree’s blossoms. Planted appropriately, the three mesquite species found in southwest Arizona also help cool urban areas, add nitrogen to the soil, and soak up runoff. Plus, their seedpods feed birds.
Now you can harness mesquite's magic using Desert Harvester's new cookbook, Eat Mesquite!. A recipe from the book follows:
12 large corn husks or 24 small ones
1 pound boneless, free range chicken thighs
4 ounces medium cheddar, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons New Mexico chile powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried native oregano or epazote
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white or whole wheat flour
1 cup water
1 cup cooked black or white tepary beans
For the masa:
2 cups toasted* mesquite flour
2 cups fresh corn masa
½ cup soft butter
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup water or as needed
Toast raw mesquite flour in a dry skillet. Stir constantly over medium heat until flour turns a light brown. Watch carefully as it can burn easily. Remove from heat and from pan immediately to stop cooking.
*Note: Most mesquite flour comes untoasted, unless otherwise noted. Toasting mesquite pods before milling is done by the Seri Indians in Desemboque, Mexico.
• Place cornhusks in a bowl and cover with warm water. Salt and pepper chicken thighs. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until no longer pink in the middle. Let cool, remove from the bone and shred or cut into ½-inch chunks.
• Heat vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add chile powder, cumin, oregano or epazote, salt, and 1 tablespoon of white flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture sizzles and chile color deepens to a darker red. Add water, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add chicken and beans and let simmer 5 minutes. Set aside.
• Mix together mesquite flour, corn masa, butter, salt, baking powder and enough water to make a wet, but not runny, dough.
• To assemble, remove cornhusks from water and pat dry with a towel. Lay out one with the pointed end pointing away from you. Spread 14 inch of masa over the cornhusk, leaving the top third uncovered. Now lay a vertical ribbon of sauce with chicken and beans on the masa. Cover with cheese. Fold the right and then the left edge of the cornhusk over the filling. Finally, fold up the pointed end. Place your assembled tamale folded side down on a baking sheet. Repeat until all ingredients are used up.
• To cook tamales place water in the bottom of a steamer. Put the tamales in the steamer with the folded side down and stand them up, so the open side is on the top. In the tightly covered steamer, simmer for 45 minutes. Remove carefully and let site a few minutes before serving.