Backyard Bean Trees
In my backyard I have this tall, approximately 50' Catalpa tree that grows big bean pods. These trees are fast-growing, and at the turn of the last century they were widely touted as being perfect for growing railway ties. Well, that didn't pan out: although they are durable when set in the ground the wood is too soft to take the weight of trains, and the tree rarely grows thick enough fast enough to make a regulation size railway tie. Now they are still grown as ornamentals, or have escaped into the wild. They do have pretty white flowers. And a few months of the year the tree even has leaves. So it doesn't always look like a bare stick.
Unfortunately, any book that mentions the tree says that catalpa beans are inedible. To eat them would cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. And they don't taste good. And it might give you dermatitis if you try. Etc.
It just isn't fair.
I've read the online remarks of a few people who have suddenly realized that they have one or two Mesquite trees in their backyard, when previously they didn't know what they had. Upon learning about it, they tried drying and grinding the bean pods themselves and adding it to all sorts of baked goods and preserves, finding it excellent.
Recently I made a bean bread, using garbanzo bean flour. Today I'm trying another bean bread with some flour made from mesquite. For me, the flour is imported and expensive.
Mesquite flour comes from the leguminous fruit of a deciduous weedy tree from the southern deserts of North America. The trees don't grow tall, but they do deep grow roots, in search of water. The tree also grows lots of long bean pods, which when dried can be ground into powder. Apparently the bean has lots of protein (13%) -- including lots of the amino acids that wheat lacks -- and lots of sucrose and other sugars in the carbs. Many natives used it as a staple in their diet, and it is quite healthy. Furthermore, no dangerous or bad stuff has been detected in the plant, if you can believe the latest hype.
Mesquite wood is most popularly known in these northern climes as a curious briquette that imparts a specific taste when something is barbecued on its open flame. But in the southern reaches, where mesquite grows, it is often considered a pest for grazing farmers. However, the truth is it actually improves the desert soil upon which it grows, and eradicating it is both difficult and ultimately bad for business.
Bean pods from the mesquite tree are harvested, dried and ground into flour. The current but ever-changing Wiki on mesquite says the flour adds "a sweet, nutty taste to breads."
The Bread I Made with Mesquite Flour
The colour and consistency of the dried powder reminds me of cocoa, and it has a similar exotic scent -- similar but different. It does taste sweet, but it also contains a certain gum that works like carageenen.
|looks like cocoa|
|browns the dough|
|needs some wheat flour to get it doughy|
|not so much rise from this dough|
Of course, it has no gluten or glutenlike substance, so it won't improve bread's density. My dough did not rise as much as I wanted. But there is something unique about the scent and taste that I really like.
Heidi Swanson's "Black Bread" (From 101 cookbooks), and went so far as to copy her blog recipe to a recipe card. She uses cocoa to get the dark colour. I've seen similar recipes that produce extremely dark bread using coffee grounds. My opinion is that mesquite flour could easily be substituted for these ingredients to make black bread. Without even trying for that effect, this is probably one of the darkest breads I've ever made. And it is naturally sweet, too. I don't think you have to add molasses or any other sweetener to loaves that are made with it.
I wasn't sure I'd like this bread, but it turned out to be a nice treat.
It is expensive for me to make, so I think I'll save it for special occasions. But if you happen to have a mesquite tree growing in your backyard, count yourself lucky and try baking bread with it.
Notes to Myself
- I just don't understand why a native tribe (the Catawpa) considered the Catalpa tree important enough to call their tribe after the tree or vice versa. Is it possible that the bean pods are hallucinogenic, and the books are just trying to warn us away? I haven't actually seen a complete analysis of the beans of the catalpa. I guess I just have a suspicious nature, and I suspect here we haven't been told the whole story.
- I'm not alone in my thoughts, but I am a lot more timid (or smart) than the author of this YouTube video, "Smoking "Indian Cigars" (Catalpa Beans)". User 1xy42witn decided the beans must be smoked to get a narcotic effect, and gave it a try. Nothing happened. But he reports that the beans can be made into a tea for a sedative effect. He didn't try that. And I'm not about to do so either. He seems to have gathered his info from this site, "Natural Medicinal Herbs"