Dessert from the Desert

Story and Photos by Ellen Zachos

I first saw canaigre at Chaco Canyon, but since the Park Service frowns on foraging in national historical parks, I refrained from harvesting. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to find more of this plant, a common wild edible in most of New Mexico. This is a lovely plant, the most ornamental dock I’ve seen. The leaves are succulent, with an attractive blue-gray color. In full bloom, its pinkish flowers and red flower stalks make it worthy of a spot in the garden. Rumex hymenosepalus (aka red dock, aka wild rhubarb) is found in full sun and sandy soils, at altitudes up to six thousand feet.

Historically, canaigre has had many uses in New Mexico. Its thick, tuberous roots store water efficiently, making this a very drought tolerant plant. You’ll often find it growing where nothing else can survive. These same roots contain high amounts of tannins, and have been used to tan leather, dye textiles, and as a medicinal herb. Boiled or sautéed leaves are a tart, tasty green, and the bright red flower stems and leaf midribs make an excellent rhubarb substitute.

Canaigre is native to the southwestern United States, and, with its aggressive growth habit, is not generally considered endangered. Still, it’s always a good idea to harvest sustainably, leaving some behind for animals, fellow foragers, and the propagation of the species. To gather canaigre, cut the flower stem at its base, just above the rosette of foliage, and take no more than one-third of the flower stems growing in a single area. This is a perennial plant, and while removing the flower stalk means the seeds won’t ripen and germinate this year, the plant will live on and re-flower the following year.

The juice of canaigre stems has traditionally been used to make a refreshing tea in the Southwest. To juice your canaigre, remove the leaves, wash the stems, and chop them into 1/2-inch pieces. Transfer these to a sauté pan and add just enough water to cover the stem pieces. Cook over medium heat until the water begins to simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook until the stems are soft enough to mash with a potato masher, then transfer the mixture to a jelly bag and let the juice drip into a bowl.

I toyed with the idea of making a syrup from the juice, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about canaigre jello. It’s simple, it’s pretty, and its flavor is both sweet and tart. A little whipped cream on top makes for a visually striking and very tasty dessert.

This recipe is scalable, so you can work with whatever amount of juice you have. A tablespoon of powdered gelatin will solidify up to 2 cups of liquid.

Canaigre Jello

Serves 3–4

  • 1 1/2 cups canaigre juice (divided into 1 cup and 1/2 cup portions)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon powdered gelatin

Combine 1 cup of canaigre juice with the sugar in a saucepan, and whisk to dissolve the sugar over medium heat. When the syrup begins to bubble around the edges, remove it from the heat and set it aside.

While the juice is heating, pour the remaining 1/2 cup of canaigre juice into a bowl, and sprinkle the gelatin on top to dissolve. Let it sit for 1–2 minutes, then whisk it into the heated syrup. Continue to whisk to completely dissolve the gelatin. You can test for this by rubbing a bit of liquid between your fingers. If it feels smooth, the gelatin has fully dissolved.

Pour the mixture into serving dishes and refrigerate. For an extra fancy touch, serve with fresh whipped cream.

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.