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Mesquite: hot stuff with home and restaurant chefs

Cooking with mesquite wood is catching on. It's making big strides with both restaurant chefs and home barbecue enthusiasts, some of whom are already jumping into the spring outdoor cooking season. Mesquite has its own secret for the best of barbecuing: It burns with a high heat that quickly sears food on the grill, sealing in the natural juices. And the aromatic smoke from the wood enhances the flavor of meats, fish, and poultry.

Mesquite grows mostly in Mexico and in the Southwestern part of the United States, adapting well to the arid climates of these areas. In earlier times, its wood was used for construction material and its seed pods for food. Then, as now, its blossoms attracted bees, which manufacture a particularly flavorful honey from the mesquite nectar.

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A wild, thorny wood shrub, mesquite has its roots in US history. Well adapted to the dry areas of Wyoming and Texas, it was used in trail-driving days for grazing cattle. And cowhands on the trail frequently cooked their food over fires made from this readily available source.

But gradually, because of its proliferation, mesquite became a pest. The shrubs, which grow to tree size, sometimes become so thick on the plain that cattle, horses, and men have difficulty walking through the maze.

In arid areas today, ranchers consider mesquite a detriment because it soaks up what little water is available and reduces forage for livestock. Ranchers have spent a great deal of time and money trying to get rid of mesquite, but it's no easy task. The roots go down deep, sometimes 30 to 50 feet. When chopped down, the shrub grows back up again.

Lately, however, mesquite has redeemed itself. Its aromatic smoke and intense heat have made it popular with the cooking crowd, enabling ranchers and farmers to turn the pest into profit. So now, while outdoor chefs let their steaks sizzle, the mesquite fragrance conjures up visions of the Old West for the backyard picnickers of suburbia.

Both humble barbecue shacks and fancy restaurants such as California's Chez Panisse now feature special foods grilled with mesquite. Other well-known restaurants around the country using it are Jam's in New York City and the Philadelphia Fish Company in Pennsylvania. One chain restaurant, the Red Lobster, has a pilot mesquite restaurant and is considering it for the rest of the chain.

Although mesquite wood is sold in some kitchen and food shops and mail-order catalogs, home barbecuers can also use charcoal briquettes which have mesquite chips blended in with the charcoal to give the desired aroma as well as high heat. It is sold for about $6 for a seven-pound bag.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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