Some see a barren waste, others a whole lot of food out there - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Some see a barren waste, others a whole lot of food out there

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Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2004 10:34 am | Updated: 5:12 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The desert’s not as harsh and barren as you might think. In fact, it’s a virtual drive-through window, if you know what to look for.

Some of the items on the menu: Sweet fruit from the spike-laden prickly pear cactus buds.

Baked goods from ground mesquite beans. A thick, hearty coffee from jojoba beans.

There’s a new book out to teach how to use the wild bounty from the desert and mountain areas of Arizona. "Foods of the Superstitions" by Don Wells and Jean Groen of Apache Junction gives fascinating facts on edible desert plants and recipes using them.

Wells learned about edible desert plants as a hiking instructor and combined his knowledge with Groen’s savvy in the kitchen to create the book.

"I have a degree in home economics and I’ve cooked since I was 6," Groen said. "I have about 500 cookbooks and I’ve pulled recipes from those and changed them a little bit."

While some of the ingredients sound less than appetizing — tumbleweed, for instance — the dishes themselves are mouth-watering. Consider Green Chili and Chicken Soup (made with tumbleweed, which Groen says tastes like any other green), Manzanita Jelly or Yucca Blossom Salad.

You can also fry yucca root like a potato. "It’s a little sweeter than a potato, but not that sweet," Wells said.

"There’s some very goodtasting plants out there," said Wendy Hodgson, a research botanist with the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and author of "Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert" (University of Arizona Press, $75).

They also have health benefits, like vitamins, minerals and more.

"A lot of these foods — including prickly pear, mesquite pods, tepary beans — they protect people from diabetes," Hodgson said. "They have low glycemic indices; they absorb slowly into the system."

Of course, harvesting desert plants requires care. When using the cholla bud, Wells said, "I use leather gloves to rub fine hairs off the bud and cut it open and scoop it out like a papaya. It tastes similar to kiwi, but sweeter."

Remember, you can’t take plants from protected or public lands. If you’re planning to make a desert meal, pick from your own back yard or get permission from other private landowners.

Use common sense. Don’t harvest from a roadside, where the plants are exposed to exhaust, Hodgson said.

Groen warned not to take plants from an area that’s been sprayed with pesticide.

"Or someplace that has dogs," Wells added.

Get the book

Order "Foods of the Superstitions" by Don Wells and Jean Groen by e-mailing or calling (480) 983-4572. Cost is $10 plus postage. It’s also available at local retailers; call or e-mail for a list of stores near you.

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