Tucsonans Explore Food Straight from the Sonoran Landscape

Cholla buds straight from the desert sit on display at Amy Valdez Schwemm's booth at the Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market next to a pan of her homemade mole sauce. (Photo by Alyssa DeMember)
Cholla buds straight from the desert sit on display at Amy Valdez Schwemm’s booth at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market next to a pan of her homemade mole sauce. (Photo by Alyssa DeMember)

The Sonoran desert is a rich and vibrant ecosystem full of unique plant life to be admired — and eaten.

Tucson and Southern Arizona’s native food scene is teeming with life due to businesses such as the St. Philip’s Farmers Market,  Food Swap Tucson and the Hopyard Market. But Tucson residents can also take it upon themselves to enjoy foods straight from the landscape — foods possibly found in their own backyard.

“It’s the taste and the excitement of going out into the desert to get your own food that convinces most people,” says Amy Valdés Schwemm, owner of Mono Y Metate which sells freshly ground mole powder (pronounced like ‘guacamole’).

Cholla Cactus Buds

At the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market at Mercado San Agustin, Schwemm stood in the center of the plaza selling cholla cactus buds, which taste similar to okra. There’s a narrow window to harvest cholla buds, she says, typically within the last two weeks of April and the first two weeks of May.

“Now’s the time to get out there,” she says, adding that people should leave at least one bud on each branch. “The animals have to eat too.”

The most common types of cholla cacti include pencil, buckhorn and staghorn. The buds are ready for eating when they’re just about to bloom. To harvest them, you first need to “de-spine” the buds and surrounding branches.

Take a piece of triangle-leaf bursage and brush it lightly over the cholla branches until all of the prickles are removed, Schwemm says. The plant has a sort of sticky element that helps to easily remove the cactus prickles.

Once you’ve got your buds, Schwemm suggests boiling them for 10 to 15 minutes, until the buds turn a bright green and then fade to a more dull color.

They can then be eaten as they are, or dipped in a sauce; Schwemm presents hers in a “pipián picante mole,” a mildly spicy sauce made from almonds, sesame and Arizona-grown chiles.

Take about a spoonful of the mole powder and heat it up on a pan with a splash of olive oil and vegetable broth, then add the cholla buds, Schwemm suggests. Cholla buds are rich in calcium and fiber and help sustain energy.

Cook Up Nopales

Baskets full of prickly pear pads or "nopales" for sale at the Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market. (Photo by Alyssa DeMember)
Baskets full of prickly pear pads or “nopales” for sale at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. (Photo by Alyssa DeMember)

Another desert delicacy are prickly pear cacti, or “nopales.” Again, spring is the best time of year to harvest this plant when the growth of new prickly pear pads are fresh, says Audra Christophel, consignment coordinator for the Community Food Bank.

Those looking to try nopales can simply cut a section of the cactus off, taking precaution with the stickers, which must be thoroughly scraped off before creating a truly desert-inspired dish.

Fry or boil the nopales and make a cold salad with vinegar and chopped tomatoes, Christophel says. Or make nopal tacos, another popular Sonoran dish. Similar to aloe vera, the prickly pear plant is slimy and great for helping regulate diabetes, according to Christophel.

Prickly Pear Juice

In the late summer, Rachel Alter, owner of local food stand Cosecha, makes a prickly pear juice by taking prickly pear fruit, spines and all, pulverizing them in her blender and squeezing the pureé through a nut milk bag. These fine mesh bags are used when making various nut butters, hence the name, and help to strain the juices and separate them from the thick pulp of the fruit.

After obtaining the juice, Alter mixes it with water and agave nectar. “It’s profoundly hydrating and cooling to the body,” she says, adding that the juice takes on a vibrant, magenta hue.

“Last year when I did it, I got so excited,” Alter says. “It feels like winning the lottery because it’s totally free.”

Mesquite Beans

Stanley Ryder, a free-spirited food lover and co-founder of Whole Balance, harvests mesquite beans for a variety of uses. These pods, which hang from various types of mesquite trees around Tucson and Southern Arizona, all have their own distinct taste to them, even if they are of the same variety of mesquite, Ryder says. The fresh, green pods, he says, taste like green apples, but as the bean pods age, they take on a brownish color and a molasses-like flavor.

Once they are brown and a bit dried out, many people like to grind the beans up to make flour for cookies, breads and various sweets. Mesquite flour isn’t meant only for desserts, though, Alter says, and suggests that foodies try making pan-fried chicken with it.

Ryder, however, has his own approach to the versatile mesquite bean: he soaks the entire pods in water for about 24 hours, then roasts them at 280 to 300 degrees. Afterwards, he puts them in a large pot, fills it with water and cooks it down until the water is low. From there, you can eat the beans plain or add them to a smoothie, Ryder suggests. A molasses syrup forms from the process, which he combines with unrefined cane sugar to create his own brown sugar, adding it to his cereal and oatmeal.

The variety of plants to be harvested and the food dishes to be made in the Sonoran desert bring a newfound sense of connection to the land and what it is able to yield.

“The experience and sense of place that is going straight into the desert is incredible,” Alter says.

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