The West has introduced me to new foods such as jicama, prickly pears, mesquite flour ... and the wonderful world of fresh roasted chilis. They are delicious. However, I would be remiss if I didn't share some sweet memories of New York State and a native food that your pancakes cry out for. Not having some of this in the cupboard sometimes makes me a little homesick. No ... not enough to endure the cold and snow, but maple syrup is one of my favorite treats. Although real syrup is available in the grocery store, it's made in Northwest and not the Northeast. I'm not talking about the row of corn syrup products on the shelf, but bona fide maple syrup. Amber ... maple golden ... delicious ... sweetness.
If you were a kid back in the 60s or earlier, the sight of tin roof covered buckets on sugar maples was a common during February in Western New York. I remember a local family who borrowed our trees to collect the thin, clear sap that would eventually turn into sweet amber syrup. A big tractor and farm wagon would pull up to the houses in the neighborhood (a rural dairy farming neighborhood) loaded with buckets and taps or spiles. A mallet quickly drove the metal spile into the tree and bucket would then be hung to collect a steady drip of maple sap. Big maples usually had two or three buckets dangling from their trunks. Sap was collected every day and poured into old-fashioned metal milk cans. It was back-breaking work for 4-6 weeks. That was just the beginning. The boiling off process takes hours and constant care before it's ready for pancakes.
Real maple syrup requires an average of 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. You can immediately see why the stuff is so expensive. American Indians were the first to discover syrup making and it's one of the few agricultural practices indigenous to America rather than Europe. That in itself makes it special. A true American-made product. Even though technology has significantly improved over hundreds of years, the process remains labor intensive. The weather also has to cooperate - above freezing during the day and below 32 degrees at night. Chancy business in the Northeast. Weather there is a harsh taskmaster, and sap quantities are excruciatingly linked to the weather.
There are so many wonderful maple products: syrup, sugar, candy (traditional maple leaf shape, please), and my all-time favorite, maple cream. Without a doubt, the best topping for ice cream, yes better than even chocolate. I know that's a dangerous statement, but that's how I'm calling it.
A favorite jaunt in the bleak mid-winter of WNY was a trip or two to Cartwright's Maple Tree Inn in Short Tract. Not only do they serve the best buckwheat pancakes, but the syrup is made downstairs. The sugar bush (the stand of trees used for sap collection) covers the rolling hills around the sprawling restaurant and syrup factory. Rather than buckets, plastic tubing is run from tree to tree and emptied into a collection vat. They use a reverse osmosis technology which shortens the time from sap to syrup. They've been in this sweet business for over 50 years. We have many fond memories of friends around a long table with stacks of steaming pancakes, plates of eggs, bacon, and sausage. Of course, no visit was complete for me without the purchase of a jar of maple cream. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed when our annual trip to New York rolls around, but I manage to make a trip to Lantz's Bulk Food store in Warsaw. They always stock plenty of maple products, and I leave room in the suitcase to stash my purchase of a couple of maple items along with some New Hope Mills pancake mix (another NY tradition).
If you've been lulled into complacency with colored corn syrup, you have no idea what you're missing. I recommend you get a hold of the real stuff and put that over your waffles. It's OK if it's from the Northwest, but New York syrup is still the best. (I know I'll hear from Canadians on this one.) Let it run willy-nilly over pancakes, oatmeal, waffles, or ice cream. At our house, it's one of those necessary luxuries that makes life sweet.
We left a yard of maples, pines, and an elm tree in New York for a yard of mesquite trees in Arizona. In fact, we have three acres of mesquite trees. The mesquite is a tough, drought-tolerant tree. Famous for its wood that smokes meat to a delicious flavor, the tree averages about 20 feet in height. Its leaves are delicate and lacy looking, but watch out! Most mesquite varieties have thorns--along the same lines as thorn apples back east. They are deciduous trees and when they leaf out in April, it's about the only green we have until the monsoon.
There are several varieties of mesquite and the ones on our property are velvet, honey, and a hybrid of the two. The mesquite flowers in May with long, fuzzy yellow blooms and then long bean pods form once the flowers are gone. We discovered that these pods are sweet and have been used in the Southwest as a food source for a long time. Once milled into flour, the humble mesquite beans are quite pricey--$7 to $9 per HALF pound.
Here's the process we followed to collect the pods:
1. We picked dry pods from the trees and NOT off the ground. Using beans that have dropped on the ground is not a good idea because of bacteria. Pods with black mold are to be avoided for obvious reasons.
2. We tasted the beans before picking from individual trees. Only those with a sweet, pleasant flavor were the ones we picked. Not all trees are equal.
3. We dried them in the sun to get every bit of moisture out of them over a period of a few days. There are bugs which bore into the pods, so you keep the buckets of pods outside. If you take them in too soon, you'll have a buggy house. The pods are really dry when they snap easily in half. If you want to kill off all of the bugs, spread the pods on baking sheets and bake at 175 degrees for an hour or two. We decided that drying and sorting over several days got rid of the majority of bugs. A little extra protein never hurt anyone.
4. We stored the pods in airtight food safe plastic buckets to await milling day which was this week. The pods had been in the buckets for a couple of months, so we spread them out in the sun one more time to make sure they were good to go.
Wonder of wonders, I managed to be first in line with my beans, which were rated as excellent by the ladies who sort them before they go into the milling machine. A lot of time is spent in the final sorting by Baja Arizona volunteers, who are looking for things that shouldn't go through the milling machine, like rocks, sticks, moldy pods, etc. Baja Arizona is an agricultural organization working to promote sustainable, native foods in southern Arizona. It was fun to talk with these friendly and knowledgeable folks about the interesting native foods in our area.
Our little harvest yielded a little over five pounds of beautiful mesquite flour from about four gallons of pods. When you open the bag of flour, the aroma of nutty sweetness wafts up to tickle your nose.
Substituting a small portion of regular flour with mesquite seems to be the way to adapt recipes. So, a recipe that calls for a cup of flour adjusts out to 3/4 of a cup of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup of mesquite. It’s excellent in pancakes, waffles, scones, and cookies.
For those who may be interested, the flour is gluten free and is full of good stuff for us. It does need to be mixed with other flours since gluten is what makes bread hold together. Otherwise you’ll end up with a pile of crumbs. Because of its high sugar content it also burns easily, which is another reason to go easy on the amount you add to a recipe. It has a strong flavor, so some experimentation is required to find the correct ratio for your taste buds.
Enjoy the photos of the mesquite flour process. As for me, I’m off to the kitchen to whip up some mesquite delicacies.
Cooking with mesquite flour link: http://www.desertharvesters.org/mesquite-in-the-kitchen/cooking-with-mesquite/
With Halloween just a couple of weeks away, it seemed appropriate to do a little hiking around the ghost towns of Charleston and Millville. The BLM trailhead is just across the San Pedro River on Charleston Road, a short drive from Casa Wallace. We haven’t explored the trails in this area, so it was time to check out a little Old West history and enjoy a beautiful fall day.
The trails are well maintained and marked with numerous historical markers about the two short-lived boom towns of the late 1800s. The area’s economy was driven by the Tombstone silver mining business which sprang to life in 1878. The Schieffelin brothers, Edward and Al went into partnership with Richard Gird forming the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company. Gird began construction of a ten-stamp mill that same year and the town of Millville was born a few miles from Tombstone. Ore taken from the Toughnut Mine and several others the company owned in Tombstone had to be crushed to recover the silver. Huge stampers pulverized the stone to extract the bullion. A canal was dug from the San Pedro River to divert water to power the mill. In those days, there was abundant water in the river. Reports are that 13-million gallons a day were available to power the mill and irrigate the many gardens near the San Pedro which were tended by Chinese farmers.
Gird built his home right next door to the mill which ran 24/7. The noise must have been incredible. So much for peaceful rural living. He married shortly after building the house and the wealthy couple’s large home became the social center of the area. In its heyday, the mill produced more than $1.3 million in silver in 1881-82. It would soon come to an end, however. The terrible earthquake of May 3, 1887 leveled some of the adobe buildings in Millville and damaged many others. Close on the heels of the earthquake came severe flooding in the Tombstone mines which brought about the closure of the mining enterprises. Within 10 years, the town evaporated into the desert dust. Only a few foundations remain to hint at any town in the scrubby creosote bush and mesquite hillsides.
However, an added bonus to hiking out to the Millville site is another trail that takes you to the petroglyphs. Early native residents in the area, the Hohokam tribe left some of their artwork on the rocks. The trail leads toward the river and the old railroad bed that helped Millville and Charleston thrive for a decade. The river was trickling along today, yellow leaves on the cottonwoods that line the banks.
The glyphs were visible from a distance, but we managed to scramble up a few rocks for a closer look. We didn’t have time to add in an extra mile to Charleston, and according to our information, there’s not much to see. Ft. Huachuca used the old adobe ruins for target practice during WW II, which pretty much took care of the remaining buildings. Charleston grew quickly after Millville was birthed. It managed to take the post office away from Millville and had a thriving retail trade with Sonora besides the milling business with a 15-stamper mill running around the clock. Records indicate that there were 62 different professions in Charleston with restaurants, stores, livery stables, saloons, bakeries, but no bank. For all the wild tales of armed robberies, the town never lost a payroll or a load of silver bullion.
We encountered nothing spooky other than a snakeskin lying under a bush. Fortunately, the occupant was nowhere in sight nor did we spot anything else venomous along the trail. All in all, a good Saturday morning hike exploring the history of the San Pedro. For a more detailed history of Millville and Charleston visit BLM website and Arizona Ghost Town Trails.