BY: JUSTIN MACY, CIVANA EXECUTIVE CHEF & DEBBY LARSEN, TUCSON LIFESTYLE HOME & GARDEN EDITOR AND CONTRIBUTING WELLNESS GUIDE.
The Versatile Prickly Pear
The prickly pear is the most commonly observed cactus on the Sonoran Desert scene. What other plant provides a drought-tolerant, burglar –resistant fence, food, or even red dye; none other than the ubiquitous prickly pear.
Prickly Pear (Opuntia) cacti are some of the most cold tolerant and widely adapted in the cactus family.
There are about 18 species in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which form hybrids. They are diverse in their form– from low-growing ground covers, sculptural shrubs to tree-sized specimens. The Engelmann prickly pear variety is most commonly seen in the desert landscape.
In spring the prickly pear cacti dot landscapes with its colorful blossoms of yellow, pink, red or purple. Their stems are jointed segments in flat paddles. In late summer and early fall, bright oval fruits called “tunas” grow from the tips of pads. As a true cactus, they bear spines over their surface and clusters of short, fine bristles, which are a skin irritant and difficult to remove.
The plant is best known for its edible parts—the “pad,” used as a vegetable and the “pear,” used as a fruit.
Not all fruits are red—they also come in green, yellow, purple and orange. This fruit has been an important food source in our area for wildlife and humans. The juicy pulp contains vitamin C and carbohydrates with more than 2,000 seeds. As the fruit ripens, it splits and falls to the ground, offering a feast for desert tortoises, javelinas, coyotes and native birds.
Edible Desert Flora
The most common culinary species is Opuntia ficus-indica, also referred to as Indian fig cactus. The tender green young pads (called “nopales”) should be harvested in the spring before spines develop. Gloves should be worn when handling. The spines should be scraped with a knife and then washed. Be sure the thin skin has been removed as well. The pads can be grilled, sautéed or boiled. They can be chopped or sliced and added to many dishes. The flavor is like green beans with a texture like okra. They often are served pickled, fresh or cooked omelets, soups and salads.
At the close of Summer, the CIVANA Culinary team harvests the bounty of the luscious prickly pear fruit that is abundant throughout the property’s Sonoran Desert Garden. Hundreds of pounds of fruit processed in-house, make delicious marinades, juices, barbeque sauces and dressings. Step into one of CIVANA’s culinary classes during this special time to learn hands-on techniques and taste the delicious gift from this special plant.
Preparing Traditional Nopales
1 T. oil
2 C prepared nopales*
1/4 C onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 serrano peppers, chopped
1 C tomato, chopped
2 sprigs of cilantro, chopped
Cover pads in water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until tender or until all of the cactus pieces have changed from a bright green to an olive green color and are tender. The nopales will let loose quite a bit of viscous liquid in a way similar to how okra does when it is cooked. Once cooked, strain the nopales and rinse under running water until most of the slippery substance has washed away.
Heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes until transparent. Add tomato and cook for 5 minutes. Mexican cooking trinity is considered tomato, onion and pepper. Stir in the nopales and cilantro. Cook for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Cooking with Prickly Pear Fruit
The pears or ‘tunas” are the sweet treats of the prickly pear cactus. Harvest the ripe fruit in late summer through early fall. Wear gloves and twist off the fruit with tongs. Pass the fruit over an open flame or rub it against a heavy cloth to help remove the tiny glochids or “small spines.”
To prepare the fruit, plunge into boiling water for 10-20 seconds then peel with a sharp knife. (Fruits can be frozen. The defrosted fruit’s skin will skip off easily.) Ten whole fruits will yield about one cup. The fresh fruit can be used to make jam, jelly, syrup and candy. The flavor is similar to kiwi, but not as acidic.
*Tip: if you get glochid spines on your fingers use duct tape to remove them or apply white glue and peel off when hardened.
CIVANA’s Fresh Prickly Pear Margarita
1 oz. prickly pear juice
2 oz. fresh limes squeezed
.5 oz. Cointreau
.5 oz agave nectar adjust to taste, this will be tart without it
1.5 oz silver tequila
Rim your glass with salt or sugar. Combine tequila, lime juice, triple sec, agave and prickly pear juice in a cocktail server. Shake well and serve on the rocks. Garnish with fresh lime.
CIVANA’s Fresh Prickly Pear Smoothie
¼ C. Cashews
½ C. Prickly Pear Juice
½ C. Orange
¼ tsp. Orange Zest
¼ C. Blackberries
½ Jalapeño, deseeded
3 T. Hemp Hearts
1 C. Ice
Place the ingredients in a blender of your choice, in the order listed. Slowly add each ingredient until smooth.
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