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While we’ve been largely successful in our efforts to eat locally for the past two months, we’re well aware that we’ve been doing this at the most bountiful time of year, at least in terms of cultivated crops (spring and summer are arguably better for wild foods). Local farms have probably been producing the greatest diversity of crops they are likely to do all year, and the farmers’ markets are hopping. At least some chickens are laying (ours aren’t, probably because they’re moulting), and goats are producing milk.
This is all likely to change in the next month or two as the weather cools off, and we’ll have to adjust our diet accordingly. Already we’ve seen a strong shift toward more greens in our diet, although our old staples of potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and beans are all still major components of our diet. Most importantly from my perspective, fresh chiles are still available. Tomatoes are also still available. These two important crops will likely vanish from the farmers’ markets soon, unless our abnormally warm weather continues. Our average first frost date is rapidly approaching (November 23rd or 24th), but I would be very surprised if we see freezing weather anytime around then. We were seeing near record highs until just a couple of days ago, when a low pressure system finally moved into the area and brought our high temperatures down to around the climatological average (mid-70’s), though our low temperatures are still about 10 degrees about average for mid-November. There’s actually a possibility of rain later this week!
Anyway, on to the point of this post: With the change in season will come a change in the types and quantity of foods available to us. Food preservation is an important skill which has enabled people to set aside food when it’s abundant so that they can eat when it’s less abundant otherwise. We should have been actively preserving the summer and fall harvests for our (blessedly short) winter, but we didn’t get our act together to do any canning of any sort. We did manage to take the lazy route of freezing a little bit of food. This should help us cope with the lack of certain things during winter, but we really only froze enough to barely supplement our diet, rather than really contribute to it substantially. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve saved in our freezer:
- A dozen large whole tomatoes
- Several apples and peaches, sliced
- Half of a cooked pumpkin
- A large jar of prickly pear juice
- A large jar of pasta sauce
- A small jar of arugula pesto
- A small jar of desert hackberries
- Lots and lots of chiles (both roasted and unroasted Anaheims, plus some jalapeños and Gueros)
Eventually we hope to get more sophisticated with our food preservation techniques. In the meantime it will be an interesting challenge to find fresh local food during the winter.
Desert Harvesters is having its final two mesquite milling events this week. The first event will be at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market on Thursday from 3 to 6 PM, and the second event will be at the Dunbar/Spring Organic Community Garden on Saturday from 9 AM to 2 PM. The hammermill will be available at both events, so bring your mesquite pods to grind if you haven’t already done so! Both events will also feature mesquite pancakes (a donation of $3 is requested), and the Dunbar/Spring event will also feature live music. More information is available from the Desert Harvesters website. Come to either (or both) events and help support the great work being done by Desert Harvesters!
As a side note, this week’s Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market is the last of the season. After this week we’re going to have to adjust our shopping schedule a little bit, since we’ve come to rely on this market to provide us with much of our food for the latter half of the week.
Over the weekend Marci went hiking in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains with our friend Erin. At one point they stumbled upon some desert hackberry plants (Celtis pallida) full of large ripe orange berries. Unfortunately they were not equipped to harvest many of the berries, but they brought back a small jarfull. The berries are delicious and we are excited to make some hackberry jam.
We went out later to look for more hackberries in the Tucson Mountains, but the plants were mostly devoid of ripe berries. They’re at a lower elevation than the plants in the Santa Catalinas, so we’re not sure when they were producing, but we’ll have to remember next year that mid-fall is hackberry season!
The berries began to spoil very quickly (after the first night they were starting to turn brown), so we froze them until we can figure out something interesting to do with them.
Recently I’ve tried modifying our mesquite flour tortilla recipe in a couple of different ways. First, I tried using raw goat milk in the dough instead of water. This didn’t have a huge impact on the consistency of the dough, but seemed to provide an ever-so-slightly richer taste.
The second modification involved using popped amaranth grain in place of some of the mesquite meal (1/4 cup of amaranth and 1/4 cup mesquite flour, plus 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour). I was very pleased with these tortillas, as the amaranth seemed to provide for a much moister and smoother dough, resulting in softer and more flexible tortillas. I did knead the dough a little bit longer than usual, though, so it’s unclear how much of this difference in texture is attributable to the amaranth. The amaranth changed the flavor of the tortillas subtly, but noticeably. I think next time I will try using less amaranth, as the mesquite flavor was too subdued for my tastes, and perhaps I will use carob again as well. Expect a post titled “Amaranth carob mesquite flour tortillas” sometime soon! We’re also working on making local corn tortillas (we’ve made the masa, but haven’t tried making the tortillas yet). We don’t mean to make this a blog about tortillas, but there are worse things to blog about, right?
One of our favorite discoveries during our initial local eating experiment was amaranth grain. We’d eaten it before, but hadn’t fully appreciated how delicious it was. It quickly became one of our favorite snacks at night. We’d mix the popped grain (purchased from Native Seeds/SEARCH, who grow it in Patagonia, Arizona) with some local olive oil (from Queen Creek Olive Mill in Phoenix), salt (from Sonora, Mexico), and guajillo chile powder (also grown by Native Seeds/SEARCH). It makes a great popcorn substitute (I think it’s better than popcorn, personally).
We later learned of another way to use amaranth grain. We attended the Native Seeds Sustainable Gardening Tour in September, and part of this tour was a demonstration by Diana Peel, the Community Relations Coordinator for Native Seeds/SEARCH, of how to cook with amaranth grain. We loved her recipe for amaranth patties, and have adapted it somewhat.
Basically, to make amaranth grain patties we first combine the following ingredients (we haven’t paid attention to exact proportions – the following are just approximations):
- 2 cups popped or unpopped amaranth grain (or some of both)
- One large egg
- One tablespoon of whole wheat flour (to help it hold together)
- Half of a small yellow onion
- One clove of garlic
- Half of a green bell pepper
- Half of a red Anaheim chile
- A tablespoon of chopped fresh basil leaves
- A teaspoon of crushed coriander
- Half of a teaspoon of salt
- One cup of water
We sometimes use other ingredients as well (such as tomatoes or crushed chiltepines). The recipe is very forgiving and flexible – basically you can use whatever you have on hand that would be good in an omelette. You can make it wetter or drier by adding more or less wheat flour or amaranth. It should ideally be about the consistency of thick oatmeal.
The final step is simply to fry the mix in a pan with a little bit of olive oil over medium heat. Let it cook for a minute and then flip it over and cook the other side for another minute. The patties are delicious served with fresh salsa.
Marci made some of these amaranth patties for dinner tonight, and we topped them with a salsa she made from tomatoes, roasted Anaheim chiles, red onion, white wine vinegar (non-local), and salt. She also made delicious mashed potatoes with butter (non-local), guajillo chile powder, turmeric (non-local), and salt. Finally, she prepared a salad using arugula, basil, mizuna, mibuna, Portulaca, radishes, tomatoes, and pomegranate, with a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (non-local).
It was a delicious meal. For dessert we’ll probably finish off the bag of chocolate chips we had from before our local experiment. We’ve come to really appreciate chocolate – of all the foods we can’t get locally, chocolate is probably the one we prize the most!
The University of Arizona is hosting a week-long series of events about sustainability, starting this Wednesday, October 24, and going through next Wednesday, October 31. This is in conjunction with the Educating for Sustainability Conference, which is happening on the U of A campus from October 25-27. It should be an interesting week! I’m especially excited to hear Jonathan Overpeck (who is a member of the IPCC, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) speak on Thursday night, and to hear Gary Nabhan speak on Friday night. Both of their lectures are free and open to the public. I’m going to try to make it to as many of the other events as I can, and will report back on anything interesting I see or hear.
Update: Well, we didn’t end up making it to many of the events during the UA Sustainability Week, but we did catch Gary Nabhan’s talk on Friday night. He gave a great presentation on “sustainability”, a concept he said he prefers to think of as a verb (rather than a noun) to indicate its nature as an ongoing process, rather than a hypothetical endpoint. I think this is a great point, and worth keeping in mind. We thoroughly enjoyed his talk and thought it was very inspiring.
I also heard Jonathan Overpeck speak on Monday about global warming (this was separate from his talk on Thursday). He gave an interesting and informative talk about recent data on climate change, with a partial emphasis on drought in the western U.S. I was already somewhat familiar with most of what he talked about, but it was great to hear it from someone actually involved in much of the research (if it can be “great” to hear such scary and depressing information). Apparently the current prediction for the Southwest is a 10% drop in average winter precipitation by the end of the century (if I’m remembering the timeframe correctly), though it’s completely unclear what will happen to our monsoon rainfall. In terms of temperature, one of his graphs seemed to suggest the possibility of a roughly 10° F increase in average temperature for southern Arizona by 2100. It’s going to get interesting around here…