Blue corn pancakes for Christmas dinner

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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.

Solar cooking forgotten lentils in the pantry

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.

How the Ancestral Puebloans in northern Arizona benefited from volcanic cinder mulch

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.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

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.

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The Ancestral Puebloans & the Great Drought

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.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

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.

Mesquite, a desert Southwest food source

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.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

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.

Adapted from The Sunny Side of Cooking: Solar cooking and other ecologically friendly cooking methods for the 21st century:

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

Apple mixture
3–4 cups sliced apples, other tree fruit or whole cherries
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Crumble topping
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).

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An experiment in growing my own bread wheat

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.

Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains:  A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens.

Wild Bread: Handbaked sourdough artisan breads in your own kitchen.

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How gluten quality affects bread

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.”

  • Hard common wheat and spelt have strong gluten. To make free form loaves of whole wheat artisan bread, you must use at least 75 percent hard wheat or spelt flour. However, many artisan bakers use softer or all-purpose flour if they use refined flour to make artisan breads, as too much gluten in white flour creates a dense crumb structure while softer wheats create the more open holes characteristic of artisan breads.
  • Durum (called semolina in it’s coarser form) is very high in glutenin and low in gliadin. This makes durum dough very “tight” and time-consuming to knead.
  • The ancient wheats (einkorn, emmer, kamut) tend to be high in gliadin, which makes them slack and less able to hold their shape without a loaf pan.

Adapted from Wild Bread: Handbaked sourdough artisan breads in your own kitchen.