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This past weekend we found some additional sources of local food, experimented with some new foods, and did a little bit of work in our yard. All in all it was a relaxing but productive weekend.

On Saturday I visited the Native Seeds/SEARCH store, which is conveniently located near our house. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a fantastic organization, based in Tucson, which works to conserve and promote the use of plant cultivars traditionally raised by the native peoples of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Their farm is located in Patagonia, about an hour from Tucson, and although they sometimes use a small amount of pesticide on their crops, I tend to forgive them since they do so in order to preserve endangered crop varieties (Marci still holds a grudge about this, however). Roughly half of the plants we grow in our garden are derived from their seeds. At their store (located on 4th Ave.) they sell seeds, packaged foods, books on desert gardening and other topics, and crafts made by native groups.

We were hoping that many of the packaged foods at Native Seeds/SEARCH would be locally grown. From what I could gather from the people working there, however, relatively little of the food they sell is actually grown within 100 miles of Tucson (much of it comes from northern Arizona and New Mexico). Fortunately, most of their beans, many of their chiles, all of their amaranth, and many of their prickly pear products are grown locally. I bought two bags of dried beans, some guajillo chile powder (one of my favorite types of chiles), and a bag of popped amaranth. We’ve been enjoying the amaranth as a snack at night. It’s delicious mixed with olive oil, a little bit of salt, and chile powder, and tastes a lot like popcorn, though not identical.

On Sunday we visited the St. Philips Plaza Farmer’s Market (at River Rd. and Campbell Ave.). It’s usually an active market, and this weekend was no exception. There is a great variety of vendors there, selling local vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, honey, and meat, as well as quite a bit of non-local food and goods. We bought some local pistachios (a great find!), pears, apples, arugula, tomatoes, and bell peppers, as well as bacon and ground lamb. For lunch Marci made “BLT sandwiches” of a sort, by cooking the bacon and wrapping it inside leaves of arugula along with slices of tomato and roasted chiles. They were fantastic!

We saved the bacon grease, as it would have been a shame to waste such a useful substance. This was fortuitous because I was wanting to make flour tortillas, partly due to the inspiration of my friend Ryan, who’s been making tortillas and having good success. I mixed some of our local flour with part of the bacon grease (as a substitute for pure lard), a tiny bit of salt, and some water. After kneading the dough for a couple of minutes, I let it sit for an hour and then divided it into smaller balls. These I flattened using our “rolling pin” (actually a large wooden pestle) and dropped onto a heated comal (a flat metal cooking surface). After thirty seconds I flipped them over and cooked the other side for another thirty seconds. I was quite surprised by how well they turned out, given that this was my first time attempting to make wheat tortillas! Next time we will use more bacon grease or oil, and will try to make the tortillas thinner.

Since we had tortillas to use, we decided to cook up some vegetables and make tacos. As a filling Marci sautéed some onions and bell peppers and roasted some Anaheim chiles, tomatillos and cherry tomatoes. They were delicious.

Finally, we worked on three projects in our yard. Our chicken coop was needing some repair, so I set about fixing the chicken wire gate and the fencing. The chickens haven’t seemed interested in escaping for a while, but it seemed like a good idea to maintain the fence. I also planted some additional nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica) pads along our north fence. This is a fantastically useful plant, and we have quite a few scattered around our front and back yards. It produces edible pads and fruits, makes a great windbreak and privacy screen, and requires very little water. We planted some along our north fence a year ago and it’s done very well, due to the sunny exposure and the fact that the plants have access to the water which our neighbor dumps on his accursed oleanders just on the other side of the fence…

Finally, Marci bought some parts we’ve been needing for our outdoor shower, which we plan to put together soon. We’re already diverting the graywater from our washing machine to our fruit trees, but the trees need more water than this provides alone, so we’re planning to build the outdoor shower such that the water flows to the trees. We’re also planning to plant a grapevine or two around the shower, to take advantage of any water that isn’t effectively channeled to the trees.

In preparation for the start of our experiment we picked prickly pear fruit (from native Opuntia engelmannii) with friends on Sunday morning. We simply took a bucket and tongs out to the foothills of the Catalina Mountains and plucked ripe fruit from the cactus pads.

Prickly pear fruit

Closeup of prickly pear fruit

At home, we processed the fruit by slicing each one in half and scooping out the insides with a spoon. We then blended all of the pulp briefly and strained it to separate the seeds from the edible portion of the fruit. The end result was about half a gallon of beautiful, thick, crimson-red juice (we had picked about 2 gallons of whole fruit) that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before except other cactus fruit juice. We used some of this juice in our first local meal (see below) and stashed the rest in our fridge for future treats.

Prickly pear fruit cut in half

Bowl of processed prickly pear fruit

We also went to the local farmer’s market to stock up on fresh veggies, and to buy some meat and honey for the coming weeks or months of local eating. We found tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, eggplant, shallots, plums, chiles, zucchini, and yellow squash from Willcox, ground beef from Cochise and agave honey from Freddy Terry, the singing apiculturist from Oracle.

We had invited 6 friends over to a potluck dinner on Monday evening to send us off on our adventure. We decided to bake a chicken and make beans, and everyone else was to bring a side-dish. One of our friends generously gave us the local, free-range, natural (no antibiotics or hormones added) chicken she had bought from our CSA (community supported agriculture).

We prepared the chicken by placing it in a baking dish, pouring about 3/4 cup of prickly pear juice over it, lightly salting it, and then spooning about 3 or 4 tablespoons of honey into the baking dish. As the chicken cooked the honey melted and we basted the chicken with honey-cactus-chicken juice frequently. We also cut up some sweet potatoes from last week’s CSA share and put them in the baking dish around the chicken. The oven was set for 350 degrees, and the chicken cooked for just under 2 hours. The chicken turned out to be absolutely delicious- I’d cook it again this way in a heartbeat! The honey acted as a glaze, so the chicken not only tasted good, it looked pretty too.

Chicken glazed in prickly pear juice and honey

We decided to cook tepary beans as another main course. The beans are very slow-cooking, so they had to be soaked overnight. Even so, they took over 3 hours to fully cook! We cooked the beans with onion, garlic, purslane (picked from our organic community garden), cholla buds (the flower buds of another local cactus species- we had harvested, processed and dried these a few months ago), roasted green chiles and a pinch of salt. The beans were very tasty, but more salt would have made them tastier.

As a side-dish, we prepared wheat groats, also from our CSA. These are simply the whole, unprocessed seeds of wheat. We cooked them as if they were rice- 2 cups of water to one cup of grains. They were chewy and tasty, and were great for soaking up beans and/or prickly-pear honey sauce from the chicken.

One of our friends brought a veggie dish. She had chopped and baked sweet potatoes, green beans, bok choy, bell peppers, red onion and a pinch of salt. It was a colorful, delicious addition to the meal.

Our first local dinner

Other friends (the ones we picked prickly pear fruit with) contributed a prickly pear “refresca”, or refreshing beverage. They simply mixed prickly pear juice with spearmint leaves, grapefruit juice (from a grapefruit they picked in downtown Tucson), honey (from bees that they raise) and water. It was surprisingly subtle tasting, and very refreshing.

Prickly pear refresca

Our dessert was fruit salad- local apples, nectarines, and watermelon mixed with a bit of honey (also from the singing apiculturist)- made by our other friends.

As an appetizer we had pecans (from the CSA) still in the shell, and watermelon.

Watermelon and pecans

Dinner was served at 6pm with red wine from Elgin and lots of good conversation. We were off to a grand start on our local journey.

Assembled to eat

August 2017
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