Our new cookbook Eat Mesquite and More, a Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living by Desert Harvesters, answers the greatest question I have: How to fearlessly and consciously make flavorful delicious dishes using native foods. I wanted to find out the method to the culinary madness of such extraordinary flavors.
This quest took me to one of the cookbook contributors Barbara Rose’s Bean Tree Farm. Barbara is a Desert Harvester, longtime Co-op member, and permaculture designer. I wanted to know how she approached enigmatic flavors of the Sonoran Desert and how she concocts such delightful results. I love her salts, sauces, salsas and chutneys. What I found are three main principles: 1) Be fearless. Don’t be afraid to try and taste. You don’t have to be an expert. Start with mesquite, prickly pear or nopales and then move on to berries. 2) Don’t get stuck in a recipe mindset. Look for fundamental patterns. Find them in conventional foods, like a salsa, and then begin replacing the ingredients with wild foods. 3) Thank, learn from and contribute to the people and traditions of the desert in the best way you can.
Barbara says the very first thing that to do is get outside and taste. Bean Tree Farm is an education center, residential community and 20-acre Ironwood and Saguaro forest sanctuary, where “farming” means harvesting, caring for and teaching about Sonoran desert foods and living. Yes, there are chickens, water harvesting and small kitchen gardens with bright green herbs and greens and crossed chiles from a chiltepin and patagonia peppers. But this farm is far outside of what you might have in your mind when you imagine a farm. Bean Tree Farm disrupts your thinking and forces you to see the abundant resources of the Sonoran Desert right in front of you. In this place you are called to get to know it, partner with it, and cultivate its ancient saguaro forest.
“Nearly everything growing in the desert is edible or medicinal, usually both.” says Barbara. With little homework at the library or a visit to a Desert Harvester event, Barbara says, “You are off to discovering the tastes and healthful bounties of the desert.” Her knowledge originates from lifelong curiosity, sense of place, and learning from elders. Barbara rejects being called an expert despite her extensive design, building and cooking experience. She believes being fearless is shedding the need to feel like you must be an expert. Barbara suggests a visit to Desert Survivors, asking about edible plants and integrating them into your home landscape. She also suggests the Desert Harvesters website or a class at Bean Tree Farm to begin to see the desert as a living food forest.
Barbara advises to approach a comfortable recipe but remember those five essential flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Those five flavors are the beginnings of any delicious, flavorful dish. Barbara approaches building and creating with the same awareness of fundamental patterns. “Then you can begin to see what is the fundamental pattern of a great house or a great salsa,” she says. “Cooking is no different from building and in the end you get something to eat that is fun and delicious and social” says Barbara. With the Prickly Pear Borscht recipe from the book, Barbara looked for the five essential flavors and incorporated them into her understanding of her family’s favorite borscht recipe from her Eastern European roots. You will note that her recipe is only three sentences long! The fundamental pattern of the borscht is to sour or ferment the beets, in this case with the prickly pear juice.
The last principle, Barbara states, is to honor the people and place of the Sonoran Desert. For Desert Harvesters that means caring for and replanting or re-wilding your neighborhood, community garden and yard with Sonoran desert plants.
Barbara at Bean Tree Farm and the Desert Harvesters espouse a philosophy steeped in this ethic. Their base is an appreciation and respect of place, plants, and people who share knowledge of the desert. This awareness comes from seeing your part in the natural system as Barbara says and finding out what is your role in it. “Whether it’s a business, building or a salsa, it needs to be place-based, contributing to the natural system in which it is nested.”