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Prickly Pear Cactus-Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Whenever I read the word forage the image that pops in my head is of woods and streams, fiddlehead ferns and wild mushrooms. In spite of living surrounded by the desert for over a decade, I am stuck conjuring pastoral images of nature’s bounty.

Yet, I live across the street from a majestically gnarled olive tree. My own yard boasts a messy mesquite filled with usable pods. Prickly Pear cactus dot the neighborhood with their jewel tone fruit attracting birds and insects. What I lack is the know how to put any of the food offered by the desert landscape to use.

A class at Boyce Thompson Arboretum about juicing the “tuna”, the fruit of the Prickly Pear cactus, appeared on my radar of local food news and a day trip to the arboretum later, I am juiced and over flowing with information.

First stop: Opuntia pads, or nopalito, are available at Mexican grocers with thorns and eyes already removed. If you pick your own, they are best harvested in the spring. Choose pads that are 2-4″ in size. Pick pads with a tong-just grab and give it a twist (like twisting the cap off a bottle) at the base or sever with a knife. Remove thorns by scraping sides with a knife, then remove brown “eyes” with a vegetable peeler. Trim edges. Slice lengthwise and chop, air or oven dry to seal the edges. The pads taste a bit like a cross between green beans and okra, crunchy and fresh tasting. They are great for pickling. To add to a soup, stew, or in a relish, prepare by cooking in 4 quarts salted water for 15-20 minutes, then drain. I like them raw and crisp in a salad with a shot of lime juice, olive oil, salt and black pepper or simply grilled.

On the trail for fruit- old school method: First step, grab a desert broom branch (Ha! We all have those handy) to dust loose glochids or filament like spines from the tuna. The tuna is ripe for picking when the birds begin to eat and the color is deep red or magenta. Occurs here, in Arizona, late July through August. Our guides at the arboretum noted the quality of the fruit depends on growing location. Avoid picking near highways with car and truck fumes. Permits can be obtained to pick on National Forest or BIA lands. 50+ tunas yield about 1/2 gallon of juice. Pick using the tong and twist method mentioned above.

This Christmas cactus bloom echos its neighbor the Prickly Pear at the arboretum.

Rake the fruit after picking to remove spines. I read about burning off the spines with a flame or removing them with hot wax. Using a flexible rake, rolling them back and forth on gravel apparently does the trick as well. Avoid any barefoot walks in the yard when you finish! Follow by rinsing fruit under running water.

Insects add value: The waxy white substance often found on the fruit is a secretion deposited by nymphs of cochineal insects. Aztecs and Mayans valued the crimson colored dye from the crushed insect using it for cloth and for tribute payments to rulers. It takes 70,000 insects to make 1 lb. of cochineal. The “tuna blood dye” was highly valued for export by the Spaniards, along with silver, from the Americas to Europe until the mid-1800’s. Currently used as a food coloring, the dye recently stirred up food and beverage news. Apparently, bug juice is not a welcome ingredient for vegans, and those who follow a kosher or halal dietary tradition, in a Starbucks drink.

Cochineal extract is used as a food and cosmetic coloring. Also referred to as carmine, crimson lake, and natural red 4 on package labels.

Raked tuna-spines removed. After raking, place tunas in a plant container or sieve, roll a few more times to remove any left on spines, then wash again to remove any remaining thorns and dust.

Jewel-tone fruit cleaned and ready for next prep step.

Final step: juice prickly pear fruit with water. The fruit has a lot of pulp, so straining through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth after juicing is a good idea. Our guide offered another method: place fruit in pillow case, drop case in boiling water and cook until fruit is soft, hang over a large pan and collect dripping juice. No worries about that stained pillow case, the juice is water soluble. Fresh juice will last in refrigerator about 1 week before it begins to ferment. Freezer is best place to store for later use.

Too much DIY? Forgo the pillow case-Prickly Pear Syrup can be purchased at specialty food grocer.

Prickly Pear products from Foods of the Superstitions co-owner, Jean Groen. Jean is an author, edible desert plant expert and as one of our guides, shared the above tips on harvesting, preparing and utilizing the Prickly Pear tuna and nopales. The juice from the cactus is mild in flavor, like a cross between a melon and a pear. It is used to make jam, jelly, candy, sauces, and relishes. I simply made a simple syrup with prickly pear juice (use in mixed drinks, add to sauces for flavor) instead of water: Heat equal parts prickly pear juice and granulated sugar in sauce pan, stir until sugar dissolves. Add in 1 or more Teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice, depending on sweetness of fruit. Cool and store in refrigerator.

Need some inspiration? Desert dessert at Rancho Pinot GrillDevoted to local food stuff, Chef Chrysa Robertson served Mesquite flour crepes with local peach ice cream and prickly pear honey sauce for a Foraged Dinner with Hank Shaw, author Hunt, Gather, Cook– June 2011.