The Native Southwest: Wild Ones

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Story and Photos by Dave DeWitt

When the first Spanish explorers ventured north from Mexico City in the sixteenth century and wandered into what is now the Southwest, they discovered that the indigenous Native Americans made excellent use of nearly every edible animal and plant substance imaginable. For protein, the Native Americans hunted and trapped deer, rabbits, quail, pronghorn, bison, and many other mammals and birds. However, some tribes such as the Apaches had taboos against eating certain animals that they regarded as repulsive: snakes, fish, and owls, for example. Later on, after the appearance of European food animals, game was viewed as “poor man’s meat.” Today, of course, game has made a comeback because of its exotic nature and appeal to an adventurous audience.

The food plants eaten by the Native Americans are divided into two categories: those harvested in the wild and those cultivated plants that had managed to adapt to the dry desert climate or were irrigated.

Harvested wild plants included acorns, berries such as chokecherry and Juniper, yucca fruits, various herbs such as wild mint, mushrooms, mesquite seeds (sometimes called beans), and agave hearts (mescal), which were roasted in pits by the Mescalero Apaches and other tribes. Three other uncultivated crops that were very important in Native American cooking (and are most commonly used today) are cacti, piñon nuts, and chiltepíns (wild, berry-like chile peppers).

Another wild plant, the piñon tree, was utilized to its fullest extent. The tough piñon tree (Pinus edulis), the New Mexico state tree, was nearly as important to native Americans of the Southwest as the bison was to the tribes of the Great Plains. The Ramah Navajo, for example, utilized all parts of the tree in their daily lives and gave credit in legend to the squirrel for planting the first piñon tree. The nuts were a food staple to be collected, traded, and sold at market, but that was just the beginning. The Ramahs utilized the wood for fuel, the logs for building hogans, fences, and corrals. Saddle horns were fashioned from the roots, and piñon resin was chewed as gum and used as a binder and dye in pottery making and basket making. The branches and needles of the tree were important in tribal rituals, and the dried buds were used as medicines to ease suffering from burns, earaches, coughs, and fevers.

The only problem with the nuts of the piñon is that there’s not enough of them to go around. The crop is dependent on the amount of moisture received each year, and insufficient rainfall in the years preceeding flowering means a scant supply of nuts from a given tree. The cones containing the nuts mature during the second year after flowering, and this fact, combined with weather variations, results in a good crop of nuts in the same region only every four or five years.

Piñon trees are evergreen survivalists because of their drought resistance and slow growth. But this toughness causes a skimpy and undependable supply of nuts. And once ripe, the tasty nuts are devoured in great quantities by deer, turkeys, javelinas, bears, birds, squirrels, and other rodents. In fact, an old trick used by Native Americans is to wait for a snowfall and follow the tracks of ground squirrels to their burrows, where sometimes as much as a twenty-pound cache of piñons can be found, stored by the hoarding little squirrel. But probably the most voracious consumer of piñons is mankind, cracking some three to five million pounds of the nuts a year collected in the Southwest and Mexico.

The ripe piñon is contained within a pitchy cone and is usually collected by spreading blankets beneath the trees and then shaking the branches until the nuts separate from the cones. The shells can be cracked with the teeth or stronger implements, and the nuts are roasted by spreading them in a single layer on a shallow tray and baking them in a 350 F. oven for eight to ten minutes. An alternate method is to bake them in the shells, which makes the shells brittle and easier to crack, and prevents frequent trips to the dentist.

Gastronomically speaking, piñon nuts are usually eaten raw or roasted, and they are also used in butters, candies, soups, and stuffings. The roasted nuts are high in unsaturated fats, and it is a simple matter to mash them intoa butter. The also contain significant amounts of vitamins A and B, protein, calcium, and phosphorus. There are about 200 calories per ounce of nuts. They are available in shops and from street vendors in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and also by mail order.

Various species of cactus were collected and eaten, including the fruits from the huge saguaros, but the most commonly used cacti were the varieties of the genus Opuntia, the prickly pears. The pads of the prickly pear were stripped of spines and then boiled or fried. The fruits of these cacti (called tunas) were picked when they were ripe and were eaten raw as a snack or dessert. Today, prickly pear pads (called nopales), can be found canned or fresh in some local markets, and there are many brands of cactus jellies and jams made from the tasty fruits.

The third important wild crop is the wild chile peppers called chiltepíns, which are the closest surviving species to the earliest forms of chiles which developed in Bolivia and southern Brazil long before mankind arrived in the New World. The small size of the fruits were perfect for dissemination by birds, and the wild chiles spread all over South and Central America and up to what is now the United States border millennia before the domesticated varieties arrived.

There is a wide variation in pod shapes, from tiny ones the size and shape of BBs to elongated pods a half inch long. By contrast, domesticated piquins have much longer pods, up to three inches. The chiltepíns that are the most prized in Mexico are spherical and measure five to eight millimeters in diameter. They are among the hottest chiles on earth, measuring up to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units.

In Sonora and southern Arizona, chiltepíns grow in microhabitats in the transition zone between mountain and desert, which receive as little as ten inches of rain per year. They grow beneath “nurse” trees such as mesquite, oak, and palmetto, which provide shelter from direct sunlight, heat, and frost. In the summer, there is higher humidity beneath the nurse trees, and legumes such as mesquite fix nitrogen in the soil–a perfect fertilizer for the chiltepíns. They also protect the plant from grazing by cattle, sheep, goats, and deer. chiltepíns planted in the open, without nurse trees, usually die from the effects of direct solar radiation.

Although the chiltepín plant’s average height is about four feet, there are reports of individual bushes growing ten feet tall, living twenty-five to thirty years, and having stems as big around as a man’s wrist. chiltepíns are resistant to frost but lose their leaves in cold winter weather. New growth will sprout from the base of the plant if it is frozen back.

There is quite a bit of legend and lore associated with the fiery little pods. In earlier times, the Papago Indians of Arizona traditionally made annual pilgrimages into the Sierra Madre range of Mexico to gather chiltepíns. Dr. Gary Nabhan, former director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, discovered that the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua value the chiltepíns so much that they build stone walls around the bushes to protect them from being devoured by goats. Besides spicing up food, various Native tribes in the Southwest use chiltepíns for antilactation, the technique whereby nursing mothers put chiltepín powder on their nipples to wean babies. chiltepíns are also an aid in childbirth because when they are powdered and inhaled they cause sneezing.

In 1794, Padre Ignaz Pfeffercorn, a German Jesuit living in Sonora, described the wild chile pepper: “A kind of wild pepper which the inhabitants call chiltipin is found on many hills. It is placed unpulverized on the table in a salt cellar and each fancier takes as much of it as he believes he can eat. He pulverizes it with his fingers and mixes it with his food. The chiltipin is the best spice for soup, boiled peas, lentils, beans and the like. The Americans swear that it is exceedingly healthful and very good as an aid to the digestion.” In fact, even today, chiltepíns are used–amazingly enough–as a treatment for acid indigestion.

Padre Pfeffercorn realized that chiltepíns are one of the few crops left in the world that are harvested in the wild rather than cultivated. (Others are piñon nuts, Brazil nuts, and some wild rice.) This fact has led to concern for the preservation of the chiltepín bushes because the harvesters often pull up entire plants or break off branches. Dr. Nabhan believes that the chiltepín population is diminishing because of overharvesting and overgrazing. In Arizona, a chiltepín reserve has been established near Tumacacori at Rock Corral Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. Native Seeds/SEARCH has been granted a special use permit from the National Forest Service to manage the permanent marking and mapping of plants, and to conduct ecological studies.

Chile Cactus Salad

This interesting salad features nopalitos, the fleshy pads of the Opunita or prickly pear cactus. Of course, the spines are removed from the cactus pads.

The Dressing:
2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 jalapeno chiles, stems and seeds removed, finely minced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

The Salad:

1 large poblano chile, roasted, peeled, stems and seeds removed, cut in strips
1 15-ounce jar nopalitos, drained and rinsed
4 small tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Red leaf lettuce
1/2 pound goat cheese or substitute feta cheese, crumbled

To make the dressing, combine a small amount of the oil and vinegar in a bowl. Whisk in the chiles, garlic, oregano, and pepper and beat until smooth. Slowly add a little oil and beat well. Then add a little of the vinegar. Repeat the process until completely blended.

To make the salad, combine all the ingredients for the salad in a bowl and toss with only enough dressing to coat and serve.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Variation: For a more elegant presentation, toss the lettuce with the tomatoes and place on individual plates. Arrange the chile and nopalito strips on the lettuce. Top with the cheese, garnish with the cilantro, and serve with the dressing on the side.

Arizona Chili con Carne

Arizona chili takes advantage of a couple of chiles from south of the border–the pasilla and chiltepíns. To spice up this version, add more chiltepíns. They add heat without changing the flavor.

4 dried red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed
1 pasilla chile, stem and seeds removed
2 pounds beef sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Flour for dredging
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 cups beef broth
4 chiltepín chiles

In a pot, cover the New Mexican and pasilla chiles with hot water and simmer for 15 minutes or until soft. Place the chiles in a blender along with some of the water in which they were soaking, and puree. Strain the sauce.

In a bowl, dredge the beef cubes with the flour and shake off any excess. In a pot, brown the cubes in the oil. Add the onion and garlic and saute for a couple of minutes.

Add the oregano, chile puree, and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or until the meat is tender. Add more broth if necessary

Crush the chiltepíns over the chili and simmer for an additional 30 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Piñon Flan with Caramel Sauce

Flan is a traditional Mexican custard dessert that has been adopted by all parts of the Southwest. This version is flavored with another favorite Southwestern ingredient, piñon nuts.

2 cups sugar
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
6 eggs
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger
1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
1 cup whole shelled piñon nuts

Place 1 cup sugar and 2/3 cups water in a heavy saucepan and, over a low heat, stir until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat and boil until the mix is a light brown. Reduce the heat and simmer until the syrup is an amber color, swirling the pan occasionally to push any crystals back in the syrup. Allow to cool slightly and pour evenly into six warmed custard cups so that this caramel sauce coats them.

In a saucepan, scald the milk and vanilla bean together. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove the vanilla bean.

In a bowl, eat the eggs, spices, and rum together until foamy. Whisk in the remaining sugar and the piñons. Gradually add the milk, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.

Pour the mixture into the custard cups. Place the cups in a pan with enough hot water to come half-way up the sides of the cups.

Bake in a 350 degree F. oven for 60 to 70 minutes or until a thin knife inserted halfway between the center and the edge of the custard comes out clean.

To serve, run a thin knife around the outside of the cup and invert the custard onto a dish. The piñons should be on top. Let the custard sit at room temperature for 10 minutes to set before serving.

Yield: 6 servings
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