A Cookbook for Living and Eating from the Sonoran Desert

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by Kimi Eisele

Ever eaten a barrel cactus fruit? How about a cholla bud? A grasshopper?

The Sonoran Desert just got a whole lot tastier thanks to a new cookbook from Desert Harvesters, a Tucson-based organization that promotes the planting, use of, and awareness of wild, native foods sources in the region.

the cover of "Eat Mesquite and More" cookbook, featuring cholla buds, fresh veggies, and other colorful foods.

Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living features over 170 recipes using wild foods, indigenous to the Sonoran Desert. The book is an expansion of Eat Mesquite, a cookbook published in 2011 featuring 80 recipes using primarily mesquite flour. The new cookbook adds 15 more foods to the table, including acorn, barrel cactus, chiltepin, cholla, desert chia, desert herbs and flowers, desert ironwood, hackberry, palo verde, prickly pear, saguaro, wolfberry, and wild greens. There’s even a section on desert meats and insects with recipes for grasshoppers and packrats.

Brad Lancaster, co-founder of Desert Harvesters and one of the book’s authors, said mesquite pods are the “gateway” food to other flavors of the desert. “Mesquite pods are easy to see and pick and the native velvet mesquite grows not only in the desert, but also in urban areas, especially if we plant it, which we encourage,” he said.

But what barrel cactus? Both the fishhook or candy barrel cactus and the California barrel cactus produce crowns of yellow fruit filled with shiny black seeds that can be harvested all winter into the spring. The fruits can be dried and candied or cooked into chutneys. The seeds can be roasted and sprinkled on salads, or used as a crunchy, nutty seasoning in salads and toppings.

Or cholla cactus? The buds can be plucked carefully before they bloom and cleaned of their spines then blanched and eaten or dried for later use. According to Jill Lorenzini, a member of Desert Harvester and one of the main contributors to the cookbook, they taste like artichokes!

The cookbook’s authors say the book isn’t just a manual for how to prepare and cook desert foods, but a manual for living responsibly in the desert. It includes basic tips on how to ethically harvest foods and how to eat by the season. It also offers a guide for planting indigenous plants in urban and residential areas using rainwater harvesting techniques.

Prickly Pear Harvesting Workshop with two students holding buckets and tongs while an elder points to a tuna/prickly pear fruit.
Prickly pear harvesting workshop; photo by Brad Lancaster from Eat Mesquite and More

“We really wanted also to teach people how to plant native, food-bearing trees into their neighborhoods and give them a guide to how to think about eating with the season,” Lorenzini said.

All the recipes in Eat Mesquite and More were contributed by community cooks, chefs, restauranteurs, and harvesters. The cookbook also features stories about them and others who use wild, native desert foods in their kitchens, restaurants, or educational offerings, from Tohono O’odham elders to herbalists to restaurant owners.

“The book honors indigenous people who have been using these foods for hundreds of years—and who have worked hard to keep harvesting and cooking traditions alive,” Lancaster said. “And it also celebrates newcomers to the desert, who’ve brought new flavors and ideas and have adapted recipes from elsewhere to this region by substituting native foods.”

Two pizzas, a jar of red sauce, a beer, cheese, and pizza cutter sit on a table.
Mesquite beer and pizza; Photo by Christian Timmerman from Eat Mesquite and More

The cookbook is available for direct purchase online at DesertHarvesters.org, where you’ll also find a list of local retailers carrying the book as well as more information about eating from the desert.



Mesquite Muffins on a platter with mesquite flowers behind it.
Savory Mesquite Muffins; photo by Christian Timmerman
from Eat Mesquite and More
Savory Mesquite Muffins
Reprinted with permission from Mesquite Meal Recipes (San Pedro Mesquite Company)
Desert Wild Foods: Mesquite, Desert Herbs
Harvest Season: Dry Summer

1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup mesquite flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 eggs
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, rosemary, or local herb such as oreganillo
1/3 cup nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350º F. Lightly grease muffin tin or use paper liners. In a skillet over medium heat, sauté onion in butter until translucent. Set aside. In large bowl, mix all dry ingredients. Add all wet ingredients, sautéed onion, herbs, and nuts if using, and stir until just combined. Pour into muffin tin and bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins.

Barrel cactus fruit prepared in a circular fashion.
Barrel cactus fruit; photo by Jill Lorenzini from Eat Mesquite and More
Barrel Cactus Seed Gomasio
Contributed by Barbara Rose, Been Tree Farm
Desert Wild Foods: Barrel Cactus, Chiltepin, Desert Herbs
Harvest Season: Fall & Winter
Culinary Roots: Japan

1 cup barrel cactus seeds
1/2 cup dulse, nori, or seaweed of your choice, flaked or chopped finely
1 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
Chiltepin to taste
Dried herbs (saltbush or Mexican oregano) to taste

Lightly roast barrel cactus seeds in a solar oven or stovetop skillet until they become fragrant. Add seaweed and salt and toast a bit more. Remove from heat, cool, and store in airtight container. Add chiltepin and dried herbs to gomasio and grind onto food before eating.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Yellow squash and Cholla Bud Skewers sit on a plate alongside four lime wedges.
Vegetable and Cholla Bud Skewers; photo by Christian Timmerman
from Eat Mesquite and More
Vegetable and Cholla Bud Skewers
Contributed by Wendy Garcia, Tumerico
Desert Foods: Cholla
Harvest Season: Spring

3 ounces of cleaned, dried cholla buds
8 wooden or bamboo skewers, soaked in water for 10 minutes
1 zucchini cut into 1-inch slices
2 yellow squash, cut into 1-inch slices
1/4 pound whole, fresh mushrooms
1 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Cover the cholla buds in water and soak for 12 hours before assembling.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350º F and soak skewers for 10 minutes. On soaked wooden skewers, alternately thread cholla buds, zucchini slices, yellow squash slices, and whole mushrooms. Place skewers on greased pans. Whisk together olive oil, lime juice, salt, and black pepper. Brush mixture over vegetable skewers, reserving some to drizzle over cooked skewers when they are ready to serve. Bake skewers on center oven rack for 10 minutes. Turn and bake for 10 minutes more. Remove skewers from the oven and let sit a few minutes. Drizzle with reserved marinade and sprinkle with fresh, chopped cilantro. Serve warm or cold.

Makes 8 skewers.

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