The mystery substance was mesquite flour -- the sweet, finely ground seed pods of the same mesquite tree we have to thank for hot-burning mesquite charcoal and delicate mesquite blossom honey.
FOR THE RECORD:
Recipe: A recipe for citrus mesquite spareribs in the March 12 Food section called for 1 1/2 tablespoons salt. The correct amount is 2 tablespoons. —
This impressive flavoring has been on the American market since around 1990, mostly used in baked goods -- muffins, pancakes, cookies -- and mostly confined to the special-diet ghetto. (It happens to provide both flavor and fiber, two of the hardest things to get from gluten-free baked goods.) With all due respect to the gluten-free people, and to bakers, mesquite flour deserves to be used in main dishes too, such as spareribs that get their flavor not from being grilled over mesquite charcoal but from a perfumed mesquite-flour rub.
Mesquite's sweet, exotic flavor seems particularly suited to Caribbean ideas (and Moroccan and East Indian too). This was our first inspiration: Marinate shrimp in tangerine juice, rum and bitters, then bread them in mesquite flour, crushed almonds and tangerine zest and fry them to a crisp, golden brown.
The mesquite works beautifully -- it brings out the sweetness in the almonds and gives the breading a richness that contrasts nicely with the tangerine notes.
Those mesquite-rubbed pork ribs were a sort of Caribbean-Indian inspiration. They're marinated in orange and lime juices (mesquite loves citrus), brown sugar, habanero chiles and rum, with an Indian addition of coconut milk and fresh ginger. Before being grilled, the ribs are rubbed with mesquite flour.
It gave them a sweet floral note -- an effect as far as you can imagine from the smokiness of mesquite charcoal barbecue. They weren't like any ribs we'd ever had, but mesquite isn't exactly like another ingredient.
True, it is related to carob, and its flavor has a family resemblance, but with a unique quality of its own. USDA research chemist Gary Takeoka, who has been studying the elements of mesquite's flavor, says it seems to depend on an unknown compound that hasn't yet been described in the scientific literature.
Even more than carob, mesquite loves arid climates. It's native to desert regions of the New World such as northern Argentina, eastern Peru and the desert Southwest of the U.S. For thousands of years, indigenous people in all these areas have considered mesquite pods a staple food.
Mesquite is a fascinating, incredibly tough plant that thrives in soils that are too salty and alkaline for anything else. As a result, mesquite flour has the potential to be an economic resource for people living in bitterly harsh climates (though you have to be careful where you plant it or it tends to take over).
For our tests, we used an Argentine mesquite from Casa de Fruta, available on Amazon or at www.casadefruta.com.
It makes a sort of sense that mesquite is such a hard-working plant. Its sweet pod is a hard worker too, a versatile ingredient that brings something special -- even in a small quantity -- to a wide variety of foods. You can throw it in pancakes -- that's a no-brainer -- or feature it in muffins. You don't even have to cook with it; you can just sprinkle some on ice cream. Or on pork chops. Why not?
We have the feeling we're just getting started with mesquite. We can't see any reason that it wouldn't go into a Moroccan tagine or a California trail mix. Or let's see, mesquite chicken curry? Hmm.
Noelle Carter contributed to this report.