Here in the Southwest, Hopi-bred blue corn is a staple food. Blue cornmeal makes the most delicious pancakes. Sourdough pancakes are very easy and the sourdough adds an even greater depth of flavor. Of course, my pancakes are vegan.
I’m in the process of packing for our move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. One thing I’m doing is cooking remaining foods in storage so that there is less stuff to move. I found this several-year-old jar of brown lentils in the pantry. Lentils last forever, at least in terms of human lifetimes, making them good for long-term/emergency storage.
I decided to cook the entire jar. Now that the summer solstice is fast approaching, the rod at the back of my solar cooker is adjusted so that the cooker face is almost horizontal to capture the most sunlight during the middle of the day when the sun is almost directly overhead. Lentils are quick-cooking legumes and don’t need pre-soaking.
Lentils are cool season legumes that grows well at high altitudes. In hot climates like the Middle East, Ethiopia and India, where they are staples of local cuisines, they are grown during the cooler months. In my climate, however, they are grown during the summer.
Dan’s father, and his father’s wife, came to visit. We took them on a tour of Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments, which are right next to one another northeast of Flagstaff.
We stopped at Wukoki Ruin, my favorite pueblo in Wupatki National Monument. You can see a light dusting of volcanic cinders around the ruin from Sunset Crater. The cinders used to be deeper in this area but have eroded away over the last 1000 years.
Sunset Crater, today a 1000-foot-high cinder cone, probably erupted in the 1080s. We walked up to the Bonito Lava Flow, which erupted from the base of the cinder cone. I told them to smell the ponderosa pine bark, which smells like butterscotch, and Dan’s father decided to become a tree hugger.
A thick layer of ash and cinders piled up for miles around Sunset Crater. The Ancestral Puebloans, which here included the ancestors of some Hopi clans, called the Sinagua by archeologists, noticed that native plants grew bigger and faster in areas with roughly one to four inches of cinders (deeper cinder deposits inhibit plant growth). Farmers planted in the cinder mulch. Warm season crops like corn, beans and squash benefited from the heat-retaining cinders and extra soil moisture.
The Sinagua had previously lived in small clusters of pit houses. After the eruptions began, they built pueblos from rocks and mud plaster. At its peak, the biggest pueblo in the area, Wupatki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, had 100 rooms and was three stories high. It housed as many as 100 or more people. The pueblo was inhabited for 150 years, until the Great Drought of the late 1200s.
These are ruins of cliff dwellings at the Palatki Heritage Site in the Coconino National Forest to the southwest of Sedona, Arizona. Palatki means “red house” in Hopi. The bottom picture shows some wild foods in the area that the Ancestral Puebloans would have harvested to supplement farming and hunting, including juniper berries, pinyon nuts, agave, and prickly pear cactus.
The Southwest’s first farmers grew many domesticated and wild plants including corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, bee plant and amaranth. They encouraged the production of wild foods like pinyon nuts and weedy field greens. The ancestors of today’s Puebloan tribes developed hundreds of native plant varieties well-suited to our climate and soils, many still grown in traditional fields today.
They practiced rain-fed and dry farming (without irrigation), harvested rainwater behind check dams, planted terrace gardens, farmed in washes, and used volcanic ash as a nutrient-rich mulch. They made use of sophisticated astronomical observations to help determine times for planting and for conducting agriculturally-themed rituals. The first farmers also invented sustainable farming techniques such as placing yard-high piles of rocks in fields to store heat (thermal mass) and collect dew.
The population of the Colorado Plateau fluctuated with the availability of the food supply, indicating that humans had reached their maximum land carrying capacity using the available technology.
The Northern Arizona University Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau web site says, “The ancestors of the Hopi built a sophisticated agricultural civilization in many of the desert areas of the Southwest, including the southern Colorado Plateau. This era probably ended gradually in waves of drought, diseases, invasions and other crises, including a Great Drought that occurred in the American west from 1276–1299. In the Four Corners region, most of these ancient population centers suffered a collapse and were abandoned at different times between 1100–1300 A.D.”
In the area around what today is Flagstaff, “From A.D. 1100 to 1225, the Wupatki culture flourished. Then rainfall began to decrease, the growing season shortened, and soil nutrients became depleted. By 1400 the Sinagua had deserted their pueblos and migrated to other communities.”
The area was not farmed again until the arrival of European-American immigrants in the 1880s.
First three photos: Mesquite trees and the desert mountain view at the Sunset Point rest stop on I-17 a little north of the Valley of the Sun.
Mesquite trees grow next to the parking lot and picnic area of the rest stop. Mature, dried mesquite beans and pods are ground whole make a naturally sweet, gluten free flour for baking. The beans provide protein, while the sugary carbohydrates filling the pods add a molasses-like flavor. If mesquite is not a native tree for you, you can order mesquite pod flour seasonally in the fall and winter from the nonprofit seed bank Native Seeds/SEARCH; they also sell mesquite cookie and pancake mixes year-round and a mesquite cookbook.
Solar apple mesquite crumble
Slice apples less than ¼-inch thick for faster solar cooking. Softer fruits can be left in bigger slices. Bake the crumble in a conventional oven at 350 F for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your elevation. 4–8 servings
3–4 cups sliced apples, other tree fruit or whole cherries
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ cup mesquite flour
¼ cup granulated sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
¼ cup canola oil or melted butter/vegan butter/coconut oil
1. Mix fruit and sweetener and spread in a lightly greased
3-liter black granite ware roaster.
2. Mix together the crust ingredients and crumble over the fruit.
3. Cover and bake 1 ½ hours until topping is lightly browned.
Bottom photo: A rainbow in the desert looking south of I-10 at the southern end of the Phoenix area. The temperature reached 104°F before a light rain fell near sunset, the perfect conditions for a rainbow to form. Notice that it is a double rainbow (the second, fainter one is to the right of the main one).
Upper photo: One month old heirloom wheat seedlings (wheatgrass) I grew in a community garden plot a few years ago. I planted the seeds May 1. The photo was taken May 31.
Lower photo: My ready-to-harvest wheat in late August.
I saved the seeds for several years. I ground the hard spring wheat variety into excellent sourdough bread flour.
These photos show hard red wheat being ground into flour in my grain mill for making my sourdough breads.
Wheat flour has a number of characteristics that affect the quality of bread. These characteristics produce breads with different textures, flavors and degree of rise. Gluten quality is one of these characteristics.
Hard high-protein flour is bread flour, while soft low-protein flour is pastry flour. Bread flour contains up to 14–18% protein. Spelt is also relatively hard. Softer wheats range from 6.5–11 percent protein and are used for pastries and quick breads. All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat.
The protein content and quality of wheat is directly related to the development of gluten—the long, flexible, rubbery strands of protein that form the structure of bread dough, creating millions of tiny air pockets that fill with the carbon dioxide gas produced by yeast. While gluten is a type of protein, not all of the proteins found in wheat link together to form gluten. Protein molecules are composed of linked chains of amino acids. Gluten is composed of two amino acids, glutenin and gliadin. When water is mixed into wheat flour, the water molecules link together with the glutenin and gliadin to create gluten.
The ratio of glutenin to gliadin varies among different wheat species and varieties. Glutenin gives gluten its elastic strength. Gluten with a high proportion of glutenin is very difficult to stretch, like a tight new bungee cord. On the other hand, gliadin adds extensibility — it stretches easily. Gluten containing a higher percentage of gliadin can stretch farther without breaking, which allows it to capture bigger air bubbles, creating a lighter, fluffier texture in the finished bread. However, a very high ratio of gliadin to glutenin creates slack dough that cannot hold its shape without a pan.
Gluten high in glutenin is “strong.” Gluten high in gliadin is “weak.”
A few years ago, I grew wheat for three years in a community garden plot just to show that it can be done on a small scale in Flagstaff. I saved the seeds from the best (biggest, plumpest ears of wheat) for the next year’s planting. I began with one small packet of hard, red spring wheat from Bountiful Gardens, an heirloom seed company. Bountiful Gardens sells many unusual and rare seed grain varieties. The first year, I quadrupled my seed supply. The second year, I quadrupled it for planting a third time. The wheat was of excellent quality and made great bread.
The characteristics of YOUR local or regional wheat varieties
If you are a local food aficionado, find a local mill or agricultural cooperative that sells wheat berries or flour to retail customers. You’ll have to ask the miller about the characteristics of the wheat he/she sells. The climate and soils of a particular locality have a large effect on wheat characteristics. Wheat grown in your region will be more suitable for certain types of breads than others. Some climates and soils are better suited to hard wheats, others to softer wheats, and yet others somewhere in between. In addition, flour ground in small batches naturally varies in protein content and ash level from batch to batch. Bakers used to uniform results must adapt to this variation. As we return to cooking with locally grown ingredients, bakers will develop new regional specialties that take advantage of the unique characteristics of local flours.
If there is no local miller where you live, consider joining a natural foods cooperative or buying club. I belong to a small natural foods buying club in Flagstaff, Arizona that buys wholesale from United Natural Foods. Members place orders once a month. A delivery truck drops off the orders at the warehouse of a local business. I purchase 25 or 50 lb bags of organic hard, red wheat grown and packaged in Utah, the nearest commercial source of wheat to northern Arizona. I hand grind the wheat into flour for baking sourdough bread. I store the grain in two 5-gallon, food-grade plastic buckets. Wheat berries stay fresh for a couple of years if stored in a dark, cool, dry location.
Growing your own wheat
Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens: The recent decline in global wheat harvests, surging human populations and rising wheat prices have lead to a resurgence of interest in small-scale wheat growing. You don’t need lots of acreage to begin your own wheat-growing journey. Even if you only have enough space to grow a handful of wheat berries, the experience will give you a much deeper appreciation for food and farmers. Wheat kernels are easily broadcast by hand in small plots. Choose easy-to-thresh common wheat, durum or Kamut. Einkorn, emmer and spelt berries are known as “covered wheats” — they have hulls that are very difficult to remove without specialized milling equipment.
Clockwise from top:
When most people in northern temperate regions think about planting a food garden, we often come up with a similar list of foods. Likewise, most peoples’ diets consist of a very small number of food plants. Yet, there is an astonishing array of fruit, vegetables, herbs, beans, grains, nuts and seeds in the world. Why limit yourself? Lesser-known species and varieties might be better suited to your regional climate, your yard’s microclimate(s), and local soils. Characteristics like drought tolerance or easy processing and storage on a small scale make many of these foods more appealing to home gardeners and small farmers than the more commonly known species and varieties.
People have been breeding domesticated grain and legume varieties for more than 11,000 years. Currently, we have cheap access to seeds, bulbs and cuttings of food plants from around the world. Energy descent will make obtaining these foods more difficult and expensive in the future. Now is the time to experiment with the numerous crop possibilities out there and to recreate functional local food systems for our communities.
I highly recommend the book Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants, 2nd ed., Steve Facciola, 1998. The massive 713-paged tome is filled with short descriptions of 3,000 species and 7,000 varieties of food plants. The book lists all of the edible parts of each species and variety. It also includes some information on the climatic needs for each crop listing. While writing each of my editions of Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, I repeated perused Cornucopia II. I purchased samples of grains and legumes like the ones above that showed promise for my high-elevation, semi-arid bioregion. While there are newer books and websites with similar themes about lesser-known food plants, and some of the Latin nomenclature is out-of-date, Cornucopia II remains the most encyclopedic reference available.
See also my post on Hopi bean and grain varieties.