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/