Sonoran Arcana: The Latest In The Journey To Find Arizona's Cuisine — Mesquite Pods
LAUREN GILGER: And now it's time for the latest edition of Sonoran Arcana, our series with Phoenix New Times food critic Chris Malloy in his effort to define Arizona food. This time, we set out on a recent sticky morning for a little urban foraging with one Arizona chef who is known for her use of native Arizona ingredients.
GILGER: So it is July now. The July edition of Sonoran Arcana. Where are we, Chris?
CHRIS MALLOY: We're in Papago Park, and we are going to be looking for some mesquite. There are three kinds of mesquite that grow here in Arizona, and they actually produce some delicious food. Those pods that you see everywhere. We're going to find them. Although the monsoons have started a little bit, which is traditionally the ending of their season, there should be still a few pods on trees today.
GILGER: And who are we here with?
TAMARA STANGER: I'm Tamara Stanger and the chef at Cotton & Copper in south Tempe.
GILGER: And you do a lot of this sort of urban foraging in your Arizona food, right? This is not new for you.
STANGER: Oh definitely. It's a sustainable way of collecting things usually in the urban neighborhoods — you can find trees in your yard, other people's yards — collect it before the pods hit the ground. It's a good way to incorporate something that tastes like Arizona. I don't think anything tastes more Arizona than Mesquite.
GILGER: Well let's go look for some.
STANGER: All right. Here's one that Chris can use rake for. These are a little higher than I can reach.
GILGER: All right, Chris. Let's do it.
MALLOY: Got 'em.
STANGER: So these are velvet mesquite. There's three different kinds there's the velvet. There's the honey musky and the screwbean mesquite. And so the velvet and the honey are the tastiest, I think.
GILGER: So Tamara, tell me how you kind of got into this whole foraging thing. When did you realize that you could use things like these dried mesquite pods in the middle of a city in your cuisine?
STANGER: Well gosh, I don't even remember when I first started using mesquite. It was several years ago. When I learned about urban foraging it was from a woman. Her name was Monika Woolsey. She passed away about a year ago, but she taught me about a lot of cool stuff you could find inner-city. And she actually tried to start a group of people that would go round and pay people in the neighborhood to go forage their trees and collect their stuff. Like citrus and, you know, different things that grow and just get wasted. So it's just a cool thing to learn from her and just learn about the proper technique. So a really important rule of foraging is don't take more than you should. Like 10% is usually a good amount. Usually you take a little bit, and you move on. Because otherwise you're taking from nature, you're taking away from animals, you're taking away from seeds being able to repopulate.
GILGER: So Chris, describe for me what mesquite tastes like to you when you're eating it in a dish.
MALLOY: Well, it depends on how it's used. It's something that actually has broad applications. You think of mesquite, and what comes to mind is how it's traditionally been used in history, which is in different breads that have been here since the Hohokam, actually, a thousand years ago. And the way they would do it is they ground up little pods and beans in these recesses in big rocks and boulders, and they used that to mix into various foods. Mesquite is a highly nutritious food, and over the years it's been come to be used in many different ways beyond that. So you have these traditional breads, and then today you have people like Tammy who are doing some more interesting things. So also baking it into sourdoughs and breads, but doing things like using the the sweeter syrup to brush chicken before baking, which kind of adds this beautiful lacquer to that skin. But also, you've used it in desserts as well. So sweet and savory applications, and relative to something like honey, the syrup is definitely more reflective of the desert in that it has these kinds of like dusky sorts of flavors. I don't know what the right word would be but like creosote has this certain vibe that you just just desert-y. There's no great words for it, but it has that kind of spirit of the desert.
STANGER: For me mesquite, it's deep and it's smoky, and it just has so many different flavors. If you collect them, I usually go a pound of mesquite and a gallon of water, and I'll cook it down really slowly for 12 hours. Then I add a little bit of citrus into it just to take the tannins out, and it's quite delicious. So I would say this is definitely like when you talk about Arizona cuisine, you can't talk about it without mentioning mesquite.
GILGER: So when you both think about using something like this that is mostly overlooked but also has this incredibly rich traditional history to it — of this place — why is that important to you? Why do you think it's important to incorporate that into your food?
STANGER: It's our culture. Arizona has a very strong culture. Most people don't see it because there's people that move here from different areas, and they bring their own comfort foods. They bring their own cultures here. And so it kind of gets muddled in, and people don't realize that we have this culture has been here for thousands of years. And then it's like these traditions, these foods, they're special. They have stories behind them. One thing that I try to do as a chef, when I get stuff from my farmers and when I get these ingredients, is tell that story because it needs to be passed on.
GILGER: How does this contribute, Chris, to your sort of thesis that you've been pursuing here this year in this column, trying to define what food means here, what food is in this part of the world?
MALLOY: Well, I think mesquite is one of the core Arizona foods and kind of has been since almost like the prehistory of this area, and it's been used continuously up through the present. And not many kind of modern chefs are using it today, but it's a food that grows everywhere that has this beautiful, complex, unique flavor. It has a lot of different applications, and I think that if it's embraced on a wider level, you know, it could give Arizona cuisine a little more definition. Mesquite is giving cuisine definition, but you don't see it too often on menus. And I think that if it were a little more present, Arizona would be a little more present like in our culinary scene, if that makes sense.
GILGER: Right. It's those kinds of things I feel like you're trying to tease out in this column, like the things that would — if we use the more often — be distinctly Arizonan. If they were known for that.
MALLOY: Yeah. And it gets frustrating kind of discovering a lot of these really cool things. I'm like, wow, if we embraced all this stuff, we could be like Denmark now. They have this great scene where some of the top restaurants there are using these hyper-local ingredients that may only grow within like 100 miles. And they've really embraced a lot of these incredible native ancient foods. And here we have a lot of those, and some chefs are really embracing them and doing a great job. And for me personally, I wish more would because they're so amazing. And they could — vs. big East Coast cities or big West Coast cities or big cities in Texas — these things are something that could really set us apart. And they are, actually, in some amazing ways.
STANGER: That's why urban foraging is important. Because, I mean, we don't want to go destroy the desert. We don't want to go out there and destroy the desert, but everybody has these trees. They're ornamental. They use them for shade in their yard. Collect in the city. Collect citrus, collect mesquite, collect anything that you find that's edible desert plants. Dragonfruit grows here in the city, and it's called Peruvian apples. And people have these cactus in their front yards and these bulbous fruit that grow on them. but they'll go to the grocery store and pay $6 apiece for these things.
MALLOY: And also, a lot of these foods are not being sprayed. They're organic. You know we have some issues with water scarcity here, too, with the Colorado River level and Lake Mead going down. And this is just getting rained on. It's not being irrigated, so we're not really diverting any water to grow mesquite.
GILGER: All right. Chris, Tamara, thank you both so much.
MALLOY: Thanks a lot, Lauren.
STANGER: Thank you.