So way back when, oh, within the heat of last summer, we set out on a project that ended up taking much, much longer than I’d imagined it would. Now, we had also done our first saguaro fruit harvest that very same weekend, but with that we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labors (pun intended) the same night that we had whacked them off their high perches. Not so with the fruits of the mesquite tree!
Which aren’t really fruits. Or even beans, to be perfectly accurate – what you’re aiming for is the long, yellowy, beige-ish pod itself. It’s as if you’re going out of your way to consume the peel of an orange; which, I suppose, is desert subsistence for you, even the husk of a seedpod can be useful.
Or so we learned after meeting our neighbor friends Rosamond and Jenna bright and early to avoid the heat. They explained the pod-husk principle as we carefully clambered between the low, springy branches and sprawling trunks of mesquites that are perfect for kids to climb and build secret desert forts under. The Sonoran ambiance was admittedly a little shaken by the fact that said trees were next to an obnoxious mini-dorm apartment building full of sleeping frat boys, but hey, it was a couple blocks from our house. And, if we weren’t there to pick up the prolific bean pods, they’d just have been littering said frat boys’ sidewalk, so we were really doing them a favor, in any case.
You can tell when a mesquite pod is ready to harvest when they are dry enough to snap with a satisfying noise and pop. The slightly moist or crumbly, rotting ones are easy to avoid, especially because they’ve usually fallen to the ground by the point of harvest. Also, pods that are riddled with too many little holes are a no-go…bugs have already beaten you to the punch. Even with those faulty pods, though, there were plenty to fill several pillowcases just from a few trees, and it’s an easy harvest because mesquite trees don’t often grow taller than head-height anyway.
The next step was washing the mesquite pods. Besides being next to the fumes of a moderately busy road, Tucson is often a dusty, sandy place, and our pods hadn’t escaped that. And of course, there are the aforementioned bugs! We just used some pickle buckets we had handy and dunked the pods without letting them soak.
After that: drying! We used tables that we had dragged out into the sun, though Rosamond and Jenna just used a blanket spread out over their car. The heat seemed to do a good job of drawing out both moisture and the last of the bugs, and luckily none of the neighborhood birds seemed to have much of a taste for the pods. We probably could have picked them up after a few days, but well…we got lazy. Lazy to the tune of leaving them for weeks on the table. But we did move them out of the rain, though!
We could have spent days slowly grinding the pods ourselves, I suppose, if we bought the necessary stones from Native Seeds, but the time and expense of that option made it make much more sense to wait until the fall. That was when Desert Harvesters bring out a big, rumbling contraption to grind everyone’s mesquite pods in a communal sort of way. When I went it happened to be at the Mercado San Augustin during the awesome Santa Cruz River Farmers Market.
We ended up with more mesquite flour than we know what to do with, considering its use goes by the principle of “a little bit goes a long way.” For example, in the first loaf of bread we’d made with it (using this helpful recipe from Make magazine, sans solar oven anyway), it’s three cups of regular flour and only three tablespoons of mesquite flour. I was skeptical that the relatively small amount would make any appreciable difference, but it really did. The bread is nicely chewy and hearty, and there’s this definitely noticeable slight spice flavor to it…like a hint of cinnamon almost, but more yellow? And, there’s a nice crust that isn’t too hard – that, I should note, is probably due in part to the fun-to-use stoneware pan that we happen to have. It has snazzily molded handles, a nonstick surface that disperses heat evenly to avoid burning, and also draws away some moisture to nonetheless make for a light and crispy crust. Pretty snazzy!