What Foods Can You Discover in Your Backyard?

Reader Contribution by Renee Benoit
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A velvet mesquite tree.Photo by Renee Benoit

This desert surprises me on almost a daily basis. I originally came from a rainy climate where the soil was fertile, maybe the most fertile in the country (Iowa. I can brag!) Everything seemed to grow on its own. For a gardener it’s a heavenly place and I didn’t fully appreciate until I moved to a Mediterranean climate where the soil was not so heavenly or easily coaxed into growing things. For one thing, I had to irrigate to get things to grow. But that’s OK. Each place has its own attributes. Each have their own pros and cons. This place has turned out better than we thought.

For one thing the climate is not terribly hot and after a mild dry spring with only 2 weeks of unusual heat we’re now enjoying what is known as the Monsoon Season. It rains nearly every day, and it feels much like it feels in Iowa. The native plants and animals aren’t similar though. I’ve written about yucca and what can be done with those. Another plant – a tree – has turned out to be much more useful than I ever thought possible. I’m talking about the Mesquite tree.

The indigenous peoples in the southwestern United States used the mesquite tree for everything. They used it for food, medicine as well as a source for making implements such as bows, arrows, and sewing needles. They ground the dried seed pods into flour using a stone mortar and pestle, mixed that protein-rich gluten free flour with water, formed it into a cake and baked it in clay ovens. It was probably pretty bland because they didn’t have our modern seasonings, but they were used to it and most likely thought it delicious. They also made mush out of it or mixed it with a lot of water for a nourishing drink.

I did a little research and found that there are six species of mesquite trees native to the United States, from Southern California to Texas and from the Mexican border as far north as Oklahoma. Around here where I live the most common varieties are the velvet mesquite and honey mesquite. We have velvet mesquite on our property.

You see the seed pods between June and September and they are ready to harvest from mid-July through September. Ready-to-process honey mesquite pods are light tan in color and should be picked from the tree when they are dry and brittle. Velvet mesquite look very much the same, but their pods are mottled red.

 

Mesquite pods.Photo by Renee Benoit

Don’t collect pods from the ground because they can have mold growth. This is an aflatoxin that is present after the pods get wet so not only is it not great to gather them from the moist ground but also don’t pick them right after rain. Let them dry out and don’t choose pods that have any mildew-y or moldy coloring. Also pick pods that come off the tree easily. In other words, if they nearly fall into your hand, they are ready.

Mesquite has an earthy sweetness. I think it kind of resembles chocolate. And since the flour does not have gluten, you will need to mix it with wheat flour if you want to bake bread or something similar to that. A recipe that calls for 1 cup of wheat flour, for example, you could combine 1/4 to 1/2 cup of mesquite flour. Feel free to experiment.

Grind Your Own Mesquite Flour

The first step is to gather the mesquite. Use only pods that have little holes in them because that means the mesquite beetles have hatched from these pods. If there isn’t a hole there might still be a beetle in there. If you eat insects, then don’t be concerned! A 5-gallon bucket full to the top yields about 1 pound of flour.

Tools:

  • Grain mill (a grain mill works best because it has the power), a food processor or blender (a food processor or blender can also work but start processing on low to avoid scratching the container. Pods are tough.)
  • Spoon
  • Fine mesh sieve or sifter
  • Glass jar for storage

Directions:

1. Make sure the pods are completely dehydrated. If they are a bit green dry them in the oven, dehydrator on very low heat or out in the sun for a few hours until they snap when you break them.

2. Then break the pods into small pieces and place them into the grinder of your choice.

3. The first grinding will produce a coarse flour that contains pieces of whole pod and seed.

4. Now sift to remove the chaff from the flour. Compost the chaff as you go. Keep doing this until it’s all milled into powder form.

Mesquite flour. Photo by Renee Benoit.

Feel free to taste it so you have an idea how it tastes by itself. Keep it stored in a glass jar in a cool, dark place. The flour should stay fresh for up to six months.

I made buttermilk pancakes with my mesquite flour. I added ½ cup mesquite flour to 1 cup wheat flour. The mesquite flour imparts a kind of chocolate-y, caramel-y flavor. It is absolutely delicious!

Dot with butter and pour on syrup!Photo by Renee Benoit.

Are you in an area where mesquite trees don’t grow? There are a few companies that sell mesquite flour online.

Link to mesquite flour makers.Link to Mother Earth News hand crank grain mill.


Renée Benoi  is a writer, artist, gardener, horse woman, dedicated do-it-yourselfer and homesteader. She has been a ranch caretaker, a real estate agent specializing in country property and an elementary school art teacher. In April 2021 she moved to a 4 acre fixer upper homestead that is within sight of the border with Mexico in southeastern Arizona. With her partner Marty, a horse, a cat, and two dogs she is looking forward to getting things fixed up so she can ride, plant a big garden, get some chickens, and make whatever they need from scratch. Connect with Renée at RL Benoit, andread all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS.


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