From Earth to Table
Discover How the Plants of the Sonoran Desert Nourish the Soul While Feeding the Body
By Wynter Holden | Photography by David B. Moore
For private chef and herbalist Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, cooking is more than just a career—it’s a spiritual experience. “I always thought my hands were special,” says Ruiz, who trained in art and massage therapy before entering the restaurant and epicurean business.
In the sunroom of her East Phoenix home, she nurses baby epazote (a Mexican herb) in a recycled egg crate like a mama hen tending to newborn chicks. Ruiz speaks to the tiny sprouts in soothing tones. “Plants are friends,” she says, pouring a cup of greenish-brown tea brewed from the indigenous foliage. When the seedlings mature, they will be transplanted into the chef’s backyard garden, in the shade of Camelback Mountain’s craggy head.
The edible plant will eventually land on her plate after Ruiz receives “permission” to pluck its green leaves from the earth. How do you know when an herb is ready to be picked? “You have to get into a quiet state and the plant will tell you,” she says.
Young prickly pear paddles, or nopales, can be collected directly from the plant with garden shears, though Ruiz prefers to take sections that have dropped naturally. “Just because your neighbor says it’s ok to harvest his cactus, that doesn’t mean that the plant wants you to,” she explains. Assigning human qualities to a plant may seem strange to outsiders, but Ruiz’s Xicana, Tiwa and Tewa ancestors cultivated the idea that all living things should be honored.
Food is medicine. We’ve known that for a long time, but we’re just starting to understand it again.
—Chef Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz
Her great-grandmother, Delfiña, was a well-respected medicine woman. Ruiz’s New Mexican grandmother parched corn in a clay oven, while her father—who grew up near Taos—continued the family tradition of natural gardening when he moved to the central Valley’s Sunnyslope neighborhood. “I got my green thumb from my dad,” Ruiz says. “When he and my mom got to the desert, they realized it was harder to plant things. We started with a plot no bigger than this room.” The bottom line: You don’t need a huge garden to feed your family. Start by supplementing meals with one or two seasonal vegetables that can be grown in pots or small plots. Trade with neighbors. And look for wild edibles around your area, such as prickly pear fruit or mesquite pods, which can be used to make flour.
Click images below for detailed recipes
Ruiz also encourages including your children in the cooking process. Growing up in Phoenix, she helped her father plant seeds and harvest vegetables for dinner. She would also pick flowers and place them in jars of water out in the sun. “I just figured I was making potions,” Ruiz quips. She later discovered her concoctions were traditional herbal remedies for common ailments.
Like the great-grandmother she admired, Ruiz focuses on nourishing the soul with native plants. Her easy-to-make recipes are a great way to incorporate healthful, indigenous ingredients into family dinners. “Food is medicine. We’ve known that for a very long time, but we’re just starting to understand it again,” she says. Her sangria-colored hibiscus-bougainvillea tea recipe, for example, is a folk remedy for coughs. Warm it up on a cool night to help with throat irritation or seasonal allergies.
Ruiz’s prickly-pear salad contains more fiber than your average bowl of greens, and her signature salsa makes a refreshing party dip. When preparing the latter, you can use a coffee mug and a cutting board in place of the traditional lava rock molcajete (a Mexican mortar and pestle) Ruiz uses. As she methodically grinds the wild chiltepins with blistered tomatoes to make the salsa, her hands follow the technique of her ancestors. “I don’t just make Native-inspired dishes,” says Ruiz. “I am an inspired Native.”
EAT FRESH, BUT EAT SMART
“People don’t see what I see as food; they see landscape. So much of it is edible,” says Ruiz. Though she harvests local prickly pear fruit and cactus pads with ease, the chef offers these helpful tips for procuring indigenous ingredients for those of us who are less-experienced.
PRICKLEY PEAR: When picking nopales, look for young, bright green pads with no fruits attached. Fruits can be harvested in late summer.
• Use metal tongs and gloves.
• Remove the tiny spines, or glochids. Recommended methods include burning them off with a kitchen torch, sloshing in a bucket of water or rolling the fruit on gravel.
• Rinse thoroughly.
CHILTEPINS: The only wild chili native to the U.S., the chiltepin is widely used throughout the Southwest, where it grows. Known by many names—a’al kokoli (O’odham), chiltepictl (Nahuatl) and amash (Mayan)—this blueberry-sized pepper can be six to 40 times hotter than a jalapeño.
• Because chiltepins are often found on protected lands in Arizona, Ruiz recommends purchasing them from one of the many food markets in the Valley that specialize in Hispanic products, such as Los Altos Ranch Market or Food City.
• Prefer growing your own? Find the seeds you need at Tucson-based Native Seeds/SEARCH, which also offers dried chiltepins and handmade chiltepin grinders.
• Chiltepins are safe to touch with bare hands. Eat them raw, however, and your palate will blaze for about 15 minutes.
BOUGAINVILLEA: The sap of this colorful bush is mildly toxic, but the flowers and colorful leaves are safe to consume. Bougainvillea flowers are tiny clusters of generally white blooms; the vibrant “petals” that surround the flowers are actually specialized, colorful leaves known as bracts.
• Wear gloves when harvesting to avoid being scratched by irritating thorns.
• Pluck leaves and blooms from plant stems before using them to brew tea.