Article by Carly Herndon, Americorps VISTA Program and Outreach Coordinator, published June 22, 2017.
What comfort food is sweet, nutrient-dense, has double the protein of the average bean, and helps prevent and treat diabetes? From the title, you probably guessed mesquite! This desert legume has been a food source to Native Americans for thousands of years. But it now seems that mesquite pods are an almost-forgotten food.
However, there has been a recent resurgence and interest in mesquite due to the health benefits and local foraging movement. Mesquite contains advantageous fibers and plenty of nutritional benefits. Native peoples from the Southwest region in particular have adapted physiology to benefit from the fiber and nutrition of mesquite. Researchers have found that increased consumption of mesquite and other traditional foods like prickly pear pads can curb rising diabetes rates.
Mesquite is naturally gluten-free and is a good source of protein, calcium, manganese, potassium, iron, and zinc. And it is available in your own yard or neighborhood! You can simply suck and chew on the dried pods but ground mesquite flour or meal is the most common use. Its natural sweetness lends itself to use in baked goods and minimizes the need for refined sugars. Recipe ideas can be found on our website or in cookbooks such as Cooking the Wild Southwest by Carolyn Niethammer or Decolonize your Diet by Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibe.
This time of year (the peak of the summer heat just before monsoons) is the perfect time to harvest dry and mature pods. It is best to harvest the pods that are still attached to the tree, as they will be cleaner and more likely free of aflatoxins, mold, dirt, and fecal matter. Ripe pods range from yellowish tan to reddish in color, and come off of the tree with little pulling. The flavor of the pods varies from tree to tree. The best species to harvest from are the native velvet and honey mesquite. Once the mesquite pods are harvested, they must be dried for grinding and to and prevent bug infestations. This is easily done by toasting in a 125 degree oven for a few hours and then storing in the freezer.
As with many wild-harvested foods it is important to know proper techniques to avoid damage to the source, diseased plants, and anything that can make you sick. Mesquite in particular is susceptible to fungal toxins. In 2013, revised mesquite harvesting and processing techniques were released based on research from the now NS/S Conservation Director Nicholas Garber. These guidelines suggest that harvesting prior to the onset of the summer monsoons and harvest clean pods from the trees, not from the ground. Further instructions can be found from Desert Harvesters.
Sometimes mesquite pods are referred to as mesquite beans, which can cause misunderstanding as to how the fruit is used. It is not the actual beans inside of the pods that are most accessible, but the pulp or pith between the brittle outside and the hard seeds. In order to access this pulp and process the pods into flour, they must be either hand ground or blended and then sifted. Harvesting and processing your own mesquite meal can be challenging and a lot of work. Fortunately, we offer already prepared mesquite flour at our shop and online.
It is not just the pods that are useful on the mesquite tree. Mesquite wood can be used for smoking meats, architecture, décor, or house gadgets! A local business by the name of Tumacacori Mesquite Sawmill produces beautiful creations from tables to utensils, and that is where we source our one of a kind mesquite cutting boards. Check out the various mesquite products we offer from jellies to syrups and soaps.
If you are interested in preparing your own mesquite meal, or just want to know more about mesquite in general, we are hosting a free potluck at our conservation center (3584 E River Rd.) on Saturday, July 1st from 4 – 6 PM where the discussion will focus on all things mesquite. We encourage attendees to bring dishes with Sonoran ingredients or garden produce but most importantly bring yourself and a friend!