Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) is the most common native tree in the desert around Tucson. It also happens to be a spectacularly useful plant. We plan to devote a future post to a lengthy discussion of the uses of mesquite, but for now a short list of the uses for mesquite include food (the pods are delicious and very nutritious), firewood (smoke from mesquite wood imparts a delicious flavor to food), furniture and other wood products, medicine, and textiles. In addition, it is a fast-growing tree, is very drought-tolerant, provides habitat for many native birds and other species, and is also just a beautiful tree. See the Desert Harvesters website for some great information about mesquites.
We have several mesquites in our yard, but only one appears to be pure (or mostly pure) Prosopis velutina. The others are some hybrid combination of P. velutina and the Chilean mesquite, P. chilensis. P. chilensis is commonly used in landscaping in southern Arizona because it is faster-growing than the native species, but it does not provide the same benefits to wildlife and its pods do not taste very good when grown here (though they are apparently delicious in their native habitat). Another commonly planted non-native Prosopis species in Tucson is the Argentinean mesquite, P. alba. Unfortunately, our other two native species are rarely planted. They are the honey mesquite, P. glandulosa, and the screwbean mesquite, P. pubescens. In our yard we have one more-or-less pure P. velutina, several P. velutina – P. chilensis hybrids (which we did not plant and would not have planted), and one P. pubescens.
Every June we harvest the copious pods produced by just one of our trees, a velutina-chilensis hybrid growing in our back yard. Our other hybrid trees produce pods which are not very tasty, but this particular tree produces delicious pods. It may be less chilensis than the others genetically, or it may have just gotten the right mix of alleles from its parents to result in tastier pods. In any case, that one tree yields more than a gallon of finely-ground mesquite flour every year (we could probably get double that yield if we really tried hard to harvest all the pods).
Yesterday as an experiment I made mesquite flour tortillas. At the risk of not sounding humble, I have to say that these were Killer Good. I adapted an online recipe for wheat flour tortillas by replacing one quarter of the wheat flour with mesquite flour, and replacing the vegetable shortening with olive oil. I also added several crushed chiltepines (native wild chiles) to the dough. Here is what I did:
- 1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I used a mix of Durum/Pima wheat from the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Coop in Tucson)
- 1/2 cup mesquite flour (from our tree)
- 8 dried chiltepines, crushed by hand (from Native Seeds/SEARCH; any chile flakes would work)
- 1 teaspoon salt (from Sonora, Mexico)
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil (from Queen Creek Olive Mill in Phoenix)
- 3/4 cup water
I first mixed the dry ingredients (wheat flour, mesquite flour, salt and chiltepines) in a bowl, then added the olive oil and mixed well with a fork. I gradually mixed in the water, and then kneaded the dough for about three minutes. I let the dough sit for half an hour, covered, in the bowl. I next divided the dough into eight separate balls, and again let these sit for half an hour, covered, in the bowl. I heated a metal comal over our gas grill (on medium heat), and rolled a dough ball out onto a floured cutting board until the dough was about an eighth of an inch thick. Finally, I placed the rolled out tortilla onto the hot comal, let it cook for about 10 seconds, flipped it and cooked it for 15 more seconds, and finally flipped it again and cooked it on the original side for 15 more seconds. I repeated this for the other seven balls. Be very careful when doing this, as mesquite flour burns very easily!
The tortillas were absolutely delicious. We used them to make tacos, and filled them with the following:
- Chicken: from a whole chicken placed in a baking dish with water, garlic, and a little bit of olive oil, coated with guajillo chile powder and a little bit of salt, and baked in the oven at 350° for two hours
- Green bell peppers and onion, sauteéd in olive oil
- Roasted Anaheim chile and Guero chile
- Fresh tomato
The tacos were fantastic, and like most things I cook they were full of chiles! I am something of a freak when it comes to chiles. I have to put them in everything, and can’t seem to get enough of them. This particular meal featured five different varieties of chiles: chiltepines, guajillos, bell peppers, Anaheims, and Gueros. I have been so happy that we chose to do this local eating experiment at the height of chile season in Tucson (I promise it was not intentional). I would be very grumpy right now if I couldn’t get fresh chiles!
We also had butternut squash and apples: cubed, covered in honey, and baked at 350° for about an hour. They were great too!