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I get weird looks every time I mention mesquite bean syrup. But then, that’s because I don’t live in the Southwest.
Up here in NorCal, everyone thinks I am somehow magically making a syrup from the wood they use for grilling, and so I get a lot of squinched-up noses at that idea. (It’s not as insane as you might think: Hickory syrup is made with the bark of that tree.) No, I am making syrup out of mesquite’s dried bean pods. Yes, mesquite is both a tree and a legume, so it puts out beans. Kinda like a honey locust tree, or a redbud.
Mesquite can be found in Southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, the southeast corner of Colorado, most of Texas, and in little scattered pockets of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. It’s also a non-native invasive in Australia, so if you Aussies are reading this, here’s something you can do with this plant.
You can easily buy mesquite flour in places like Whole Foods, and it’s made from beans of a South American variety of mesquite, so I am sure you can make syrup from that flour. But I’ve never done it. If you have, let me know how it went in the comments, OK?
All told, there are about a dozen species, the best of which are honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), velvet mesquite (P. velvtina), and the screwbean mesquite, which is P. pubescens. I am using honey mesquite for this recipe, but any variety works.
Simply gather your beans and make sure they are very dry, which normally isn’t hard in the desert. Only thing you’ll notice are little holes in the beans.
These are caused by bruchid beetles, whose larvae bore their way out of the dry pod. So yeah, they are exit holes, not entry, which means you are not likely to eat a ton of little larvae. Even if there are some in your beans, who cares? They’re teeny and will be cooked to death with the bean pods as you make the syrup. So don’t sweat it.
So how to make mesquite bean syrup?
It’s actually very simple because the bean pods are naturally sugary; there is no sugar added. In a nutshell, you break up the pods, steep them in water, and that water becomes your syrup.
Here’s how. First, I use a ratio of 1 gallon of water to 1 pound of beans. Smash them up as best you can. I put the beans in a heavy duty plastic Ziploc and bash them with a rubber mallet. You’ll never destroy the seeds, but that’s fine.
You don’t want to boil or even simmer the water. This is very important. Beer brewers will know why: Higher temperatures extract tannins and other bitter compounds from the pods, which can wreck your syrup. Slow and low is the key.
You can do this in a low oven, or on the stovetop set on low, but the best method is in a slow cooker. Just put all your crushed beans and water in the slow cooker, set it so it will never even simmer, put the lid on and walk away.
How long? At least overnight, and 20 to 24 hours is better. Strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer first, then again through a paper towel or cheesecloth to get the fine, suspended particles out.
You now have an awesome liquid the color of dark chocolate, with a high enough sugar content to brew into alcohol if you wanted to: 1 gallon of water with 1 pound of crushed mesquite pods steeped 18 hours got me a specific gravity reading of 1.030, which would make a beer of about 3% alcohol.
That’s not strong enough to be a syrup, though. Now you need to reduce the liquid to get it to the sweetness you want.
Again, don’t boil it. I pour the syrup into a pot and heat it to the steaming point, and let that cook very gently until it is reduced by half, about 2 hours. Slowly reducing the syrup produces cleaner flavors than you’d get by boiling it down.
And what are those flavors? They are borderline mystical. Seriously.
Mesquite bean syrup combines hints of malt, mocha, cinnamon and vanilla with a definite woody background. It is wonderful stuff you need to taste to fully appreciate.
And, since mesquite is common-to-invasive wherever it lives, you might as well make use of it, right?