Post 44: Three for Free

So now we’ve got inflation again, and higher prices at the grocery store. We’ve got empty shelves, here and there. Supply chain problems, we’re told—but “chain” is too simple a concept. Our global interdependence is more like a fine web, covering the planet in such detail that nobody can understand much more than the nearby nodes—the personally relevant causes and effects. It’s hard to put the blame on anyone or anything. Is it the labor shortage? Climate change? Recalls? Wars, and their effect on resources? Many explanations are offered. Many stories are told.

Here in United States., the majority of us aren’t yet in big trouble, in terms of the basics—the food and water and shelter we need for survival. The baby formula shortage is alarming, of course; you can’t substitute just anything for Mom’s milk and not risk physical and developmental problems in the child. In an emergency like this, a president can insert himself into the supply web—invoking the Defense Production Act and commandeering aircraft for flying in supplies from elsewhere. Hopefully the crisis will be averted.

The temporary dearth of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic was not a threat of the same magnitude.

I sometimes wonder how this uncertainty and lack of control affects people. I guess throughout history and throughout the world, humans were mostly not in control of their lives. Outside forces ruled. Even dictators and royalty had to fear being overthrown, beheaded, shot. Life has always been iffy. The iffiness ebbs and flows, is all—and that’s what it means to exist.

Still, I like to carve out as much independence as I can. Especially when it comes to the basics: shelter, food, water. For some of my shelter, I built a casita out of mud and salvage—not a single supply chain link involved. For water I put in two rain-collecting tanks, which together hold around 1,500 gallons—great to have, when it rains (though I’m not in control of that). But food independence is an ongoing goal I never quite reach—or expect to, really. It involves gardening and foraging. And learning how to garden and forage. But I have no elders to teach me, no inherited tradition of plants to grow or locate.

Food independence, after all, is a local thing—what to plant when in the garden, or where to find the edibles already growing around you, and in which season to harvest them.

Then there’s how to prepare and cook them.

In this post I’m including that part, with recipes, for three desert plants: palo verde, yucca, and sumac. These do grow in regions beyond the Sonoran Desert, but some readers won’t have access to them. (You people can skip the rest of the post. But find at least one edible plant from your area, and try out a recipe you get from a friend or online.  Then leave me a comment about how it went. Thank you.)

Palo verde beans
Left: a partially-shucked palo verde bean pod, with more beans inside than I ever find on my tree. Right: Beans in a bowl, with more pods (bottom) waiting to be peeled.

1. Palo verde tree

The palo verde is Arizona’s state tree—and what a gift to desert dwellers! Knockout flower display in the early spring, edible beans in the late spring, shade in the summer, sprouts from dry seeds any time. Native desert people also ground the dry pods into flour, but I haven’t tried this, or the sprouts. The dry seeds are hard.

If you’re planting this tree (any variety, blue, foothills, Mexican), be aware that the larva of the palo verde beetle may munch on its roots, eventually killing it or suddenly toppling it.

There’s a short window during which the seeds within the pods are green and crunchable, so if yours are ready, pick and shuck them soon. I go for the two- or three-bean pods as much as possible, because the one-bean pods take the same amount of time to pick and shuck, and they obviously yield less. The seeds resemble edamame in looks and taste (we call them “palomame”) but may get slightly bitter late in their season. Taste them first, and soak them in salt water or vinegar if they’re bitter.

Recipe: “Palomame”

Steam or boil the shiny green seeds as you would shelled edamame, sampling until they’ve reached the desired softness. Serve with butter, salt, and pepper.

For added flavor, saute garlic and onions in olive oil and mix with the beans before serving.

This informal blog has some interesting details about palo verde beans.

Night Life of the Yucca book cover

2. Yucca

I learned a lot about this plant when I illustrated the children’s book, Night Life of the Yucca, by Katherine Hauth. It’s really a book of what I would call “scientific poetry,” so I had to be accurate in the visual details, and learned that the genus yucca covers a lot of species, including yucca brevifolia (joshua tree), which grows where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, and also including the state flower of New Mexico, where Hauth wrote the book. (Don’t confuse yucca with yuca, or cassava.) As far as I know, all yucca flower petals are edible, but if you’re in South America or the Caribbean (or, at the opposite end of things, in Canada), do confirm this with the locals. In some places you may even encounter traditional recipes—by all means, follow those instead of the one below!

Terry with yucca flowers
This beautiful yucca stalk was too stiff to bend, and it broke, unfortunately. Luckily, there were half dozen more next to it, and the plant will send up another in its place next year.

When harvesting, look for the low-hanging blooms or, if necessary, bend down one of the more supple stalks to reach the blossoms. Pluck the entire “bell.” To clean, remove the petals from the central sex organs, which are bitter.

I find that the petals taste a lot like lettuce. Eat one and see if you agree.

Recipe: Yucca Petal Soup

Soup base: Make a standard roux (also called bechamel, white sauce, or cream sauce) according to your favorite recipe. Ingredients: butter, flour, milk. If you don’t have a favorite, now might be a good time to find one; this is a sauce that can make anything special, including mac and cheese (by melting in some cheese, and mixing with the cooked pasta). Nobody needs a box mix from the store—this sauce is just as simple, and fresher.

Add yucca petals to the roux, and simmer for about three minutes to soften them. If you prefer a thin soup, a few petals per serving is enough, and you can also dilute the white sauce with more milk, water, or vegetable broth. For a thick soup or stew, add as many petals as you like.

If you’re like me, when it comes to soup, you believe in adding whatever you have in the refrigerator or in the garden that needs to be eaten—and I do that with this soup, also. Any “creamable” veg can be added to this soup.

A big bowl of yucca petals. Right: the castoff bitter centers of the flower, headed for the compost bin.

Warning: If you’ve never eaten yucca petals before, start with just a few, as they’ve been known to upset a sensitive stomach—including mine, the first time I had this soup. For some reason I haven’t been bothered by that problem since.

3. Sumac

I spent my whole childhood in Minnesota being afraid of poison sumac, so of course when I got to know the sumac tree in Tucson, with its little cream-colored berries that “looked poisonous,” I assumed the fruit was also toxic, or at least inedible.

Rhus lancea berries
Rhus lancia berries. Are they ripe? Taste a cluster. Suck, don’t chew.

I was wrong. Of the many species of Rhus—what we have here is Rhus lancea, or African sumac—only one is toxic to the touch, and that one has been reclassified as Toxicodendron vermix—it’s no longer a Rhus at all. It grows in swamps and bogs, something we don’t have a lot of in this desert, so I needn’t have worried here. Also, in the U.S., the poison “sumac” grows mostly on the East Coast, though there’s a tiny patch near the Twin Cities where I grew up (map: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toxicodendron_vernix_map.png), so I suppose it’s good that I was warned against the rash-producing plant.

But to have that messy, leaf-shedding, berry-dropping African sumac in my yard for thirty-plus years, necessitating both pathway-sweeping and shoot-weeding for many months at a time, suddenly turn out to be useful—well, that was a wonderful shock.

The berries are coated with a delicious citrus flavor you can actually make “lemonade” from. Harvesting directions will tell you to wait to pick the berries until they’re pink or red or reddish brown, but the berries of the African sumac in my yard never get much color, at least until they’re shriveled and brown with age—last year’s crop. Pop a handful of this season’s still-light berries into your mouth, and if they taste nice and lemony, they’re ready to flavor your new favorite drink.

Rhus lancea branches
This spring’s Rhus lancea crop

Recipe: Rhusitrus Refresher

This might be the simplest recipe you’ll ever follow: Cover ripe berries with water. Let sit for 24 hours. Strain out the seeds.

You’ll find variations on this basic recipe online, which you can follow instead, if you want. The soak time may vary depending on the berries, so keep tasting the liquid. Don’t follow any instructions that mention crushing or opening up the berries in some way; the lemony flavor is only on their outsides, and their inner seed bulk is just plain tasteless.

Some people add sugar, but I find it’s not needed.  The taste isn’t as sour as lemons.

So this is a recipe you can taste before you make it! Pick a little cluster of berries and suck on them—if you like the taste, try making the drink.

Pour yourself a glass, add some ice if you like, and go sit under the shade of the nearest African sumac. Or whatever version of Rhus you have nearby.

And enjoy your independence.

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