Monthly Archives: August 2012

Is it a weed or edible green?

Purslane or verdolagas

The summer rains bring lots of sprouting green plants.  Tidy gardeners like to get undesirables out pronto, but what might be called a weed by some could be a tasty salad.

I first learned about purslane (which the Mexicans call verdolagas) decades ago while researching my book American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest.  While hitchhiking into town from the outskirts of Taos to do library research, I was picked up by Teles Goodmorning, an elderly man from the Taos Pueblo driving an old red pickup.  When I told him of my interests, he offered to let me accompany him to a dance at Picuris Pueblo.  Sounded better than the library!  Later he took me home to meet his wife Pauline and over the next couple of years, that sweet woman taught me about the wild plants she gathered.  Her daughters liked purslane so much that she canned it for out-of-season eating.

Purslane is a low-growing succulent with fleshy leaves, pinkish stems and a slightly lemony-y flavor.  It is good chopped in salads with a light vinaigrette and can be added to a stew.  It contains vitamin C, calcium, iron and the most Omega 3 acids of any green. It also has some of the slippery juices that help with controlling blood sugar.

Amaranth sprout

Late summer is also the season for wild amaranth.  This is not the variety that produces big seed heads, but a leafier species.  The leaves have a mild flavor and are good just lightly cooked in a stir fry or steamed.

Lambsquarter

I’ve written about lambsquarter back in the spring a couple of times, but here it comes again. Mild, delicious and full of vitamins. This reliable “weed” wants only sun and a little moisture to produce a nice crop.  It doesn’t even need very good soil.

So for a free harvest of good eating and a mega-dose of vitamins, control your weeding for a few weeks, let the greens grow and turn your yard cleanup into a harvest instead.

For more recipes for using these and other wild greens, check out my latest book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.

Superior, AZ Prickly Pear Festival

Jean Groen picking juicy prickly pear fruit.

The central Arizona town of Superior is getting into the desert spirit with their first Prickly Pear Festival on August 25.  They will beat the heat by starting early at 6:30 a.m. with a guided desert walk, followed by an pancake breakfast (just a base for prickly pear syrup!) from 8 to 9:30.   At 9 a.m. , just 25 lucky participants will join Pete Rendek to learn how to brew prickly pear pale ale.

Those particpants not in the ale class can join Jean Groen and me for demonstrations on making prickly pear juice and other delicious goodies with prickly pear starting at 10 a.m. in the air-conditioned Senior Center.  Jean, a graduate home economist, teaches a popular series of classes at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. She is the author of “Plants of the Sonoran Desert and Their Many Uses,” and “Foods of the Superstitions, Old and New.”

Other vendors will be offering prickly pear products including Cheri from Cheri’s Desert Harvest with her delicious syrups, jams and candies.  The Chocolate Lady will bring chocolate prickly pear truffles (can’t wait for those) and restaurants in town will feature special prickly pear dishes.

Jean recently had one of her recipes using prickly pear pads (nopalitos) printed in Better Homes and Gardens magazine.  What an honor.  You know when nopalitos make it into a magazine like BH&G, that they are making their way into the national consciousness.   Jean has shared the recipe with us below.

SALSA JAM

1 ½ c. peeled and chopped tomatoes.

½ c. chopped onions

½ c. tomato sauce

1/3 c. minced cilantro

½ c. canned, rinsed, drained, chopped nopalitos (or use fresh)

1/3 c. pickled jalapenos, chopped

2 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 tsp. grated lime peel

¼ tsp. hot pepper sauce

4 ½ c. sugar

¾ c. water

1 box pectin

Squeeze tomatoes to remove juice and seed before chopping.  Mix first 9 ingredients.  Stir well and let set for 10 minutes.  Combine water and pectin in saucepan.  Bring to boil on high.  Boil for 1 minute.  Pour into the vegetable mixture.  Stir 3 minutes.  Put in containers and store in freezer.

Serve over cream cheese with crackers.

For more recipes for prickly pear, check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Both books give complete information on harvesting and preparing both the pads and fruit of the prickly pear as well as turning them into delicious dishes your family and guests will love.

Prickly Pear: Juicing Made Easy

Prickly pears are ripening!

As the summer deepens, prickly pears are ripening in the desert.  In the higher elevations, they may still be a few weeks away from that perfect juicy purple ripeness.  I’ve been playing with prickly pears for more than 40 years, and have finally settled on the easiest, quickest way to make the juice.  I’m a little embarrassed when I think of all the time I’ve wasted in earlier years with more complicated techniques.

The first thing to do is assemble your tools.  Do this first and you’ll save time and aggravation in the long run.  You need tongs, tweezers and rubber gloves.  Just grocery store gloves will do, but buy good ones, not the cheapest.  This will keep most of the stickers out of your fingers.  The tweezers are for the occasional sticker that will still find its way into your hands.

Essential tools: Tweezers, tongs and rubber gloves

First rinse the fruit in a colander to wash off any dust. Then cut the prickly pears into big chunks — three to four pieces each.

Cut the fruit into big chunks.

You do not need to take off the stickers or peel them.  The peel is contains healthy nutrients.  It is especially rich in betalains, which are powerful antioxidants. In fact, prickly pears are the only know source of all of the 24 naturally occurring belatains.  If you’d like to learn more you, can read about it here.  Prickly pears are also high in vitamins A and C.

Cut up about a dozen pears, a few more if they are small, and put them in a blender jar.  For the first batch, you’ll need to add about a fourth cup of water to get the process going. (For later batches, just use a little juice from the first batch).

Load up the blender

Run the blender until you have a nice slurry.  Then strain through a fine sieve.

Sieve will strain out seeds, stickers, everything but delicious juice.

Around a dozen prickly pears should give about a cup of juice.  To make syrup, transfer it to a saucepan, add 1 1/2 cups of sugar (or less), a little lemon juice and about a teaspoon of cornstarch.  Cook until thickened, store in jar and refrigerate.

Use your prickly pear juice in drinks or use it to make syrup.

You can use your syrup to top pancakes, waffles, French toast or ice cream.  If you are interested in branching out to other recipes you can learn about Prickly Pear Onion Jam, Prickly Pear Barbecue Meatballs or Prickly Pear Ice Cream in The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  One my favorite recipes is Prickly Pear, Citrus and Chipotle Sauce for Chicken in The New Southwest Cookbook.  Two simple but delicious recipes are Prickly Pear Salad Dressing and Summer Jam in my latest book Cooking the Wild Southwest.