When I got home, my copy of The Good Life Lab had arrived. I love it. It’s scrappy and very desert-oriented: where other DIY books have instructions on soap making and canning strawberries, this book has a papercrete dome built with a drag-behind mixer and a recipe for taking rust off old tools; the recipes use wolf berry, ocotillo and prickly pear, with instructions to substitute local plants as needed.
When I saw Damian, my brother-in-law, walking around with a pair of tongs and a bucket full of cholla blossoms, I thought he was on some crazy mission to stem the proliferation of spiky flora on the property. But no, Damian had learned that cholla buds are not only edible, but were a staple of native peoples in the desert and are an excellent source of vitamin C.
Well, great! The cholla forest is blooming this month, so I went out collecting too.
Getting the spikes off is a trick. I eventually settled on using an old screen door propped up off the ground and a straw broom. Sweeping the buds back and forth across the screen works pretty well: the spines catch in the screen and break off, and the ones that are left become dull enough to pick off by hand. Even better would be a box with tall sides and screen on the bottom, to allow for more vigorous sweeping.
I learned the hard way that its important to do this while the buds are fresh; the job gets much harder as the buds dry out. Once spine-free, I boiled them for 15-20 minutes to remove oxalic acid. I added lemon juice to the boiling water and ran them under cold water once cooked to try to keep some of the bright green colour.
The flavour has tones of artichokes and asparagus with a little of the sliminess of nopales or okra in the middle. I served them with butter and lemon, and then we dipped them in some roasted garlic and balsamic salad dressing Nathen made the other night. Delicious, and well worth the effort.
All you need to prepare your cholla in the wild is a lighter and a pocket comb. Grasp the comb and rake in a downward motion along the shaft of the plant. The fruit should pop right off and be trapped in the teeth of the comb. Skewer your cholla onto a small branch and use the lighter to spark a pile of brush. Cook until the spines char and break off. Once the fruit is clear of spikes, simply peel the skin and roast until warm.
I’d love to know what tools and methods native peoples used, since plastic combs and metal screens are relatively recent inventions.
Nathen dug a garden in the old goat pen. Have I mentioned that my husband is very good at getting things done? He bought starts and we filled up the garden on Saturday: tomatoes, hot peppers, cantaloupe, squash, corn. It was so fun, and has changed my relationship to the yard. I see new possibilities in every direction. Next up, rabbit proofing and a couple trips to the dump.
My friend Katie hosted a Women’s Dinner in the Desert last weekend. She asked people to bring things to contribute (I brought quilts and fermented soda). Andrea Zittel wrote a good post about the dinner and the growing desert community, with more photos.
Katie and Kate and Sarah say there will be more dinners, and a publication is in the works.
I finally tried the solar cooker today. I’d been waiting to find the perfect pot in one of the thrift stores (Cooking with Sunshine recommends thin black enamel cookware). Nothing has turned up yet, so I just went for it with my grandma’s heavy cast iron pot.
I put the quinoa in the cooker at 10 am, and pointed it at the sun. The thermometer read about 200 f. Nathen re-aimed it once or twice while I was at work. At 5 pm I pulled the pot out and the quinoa was starting to burn at the edges.
I think I used too much water and the quinoa was a little mushy – tho if I’d used less it probably would have been more burnt.
Clearly we have some refining to do, but this awesome cooking power is great news, as using the stove inside the trailer during the day is pretty unappealing.