Tag Archives: cactus cooking

Turn Prickly Pear into a Cooling Dessert

Juicy prickly pear fruit

Juicy prickly pear fruit

When you can still find big juicy prickly pears, it’s time to try some recipies using the flesh of the fruit. Later when the season has passed we can still cook with prickly pear, but we’ll be using syrup we’ve made and juice we have frozen.

I’m going to tell you how to make a light and luscious summer dessert called Prickly Pear Blanc-Manger.  Pronounced  blah-mahn-jhay, it is one of the oldest sweets we know, possibly dating from Roman times.

You will need a cupful of prickly pear fruit chunk,s but preparing them is a sort of fussy job.  First agenda item: pull on your  heavy-ish rubber gloves and locate the tweezers. Rinse the fruit to wash off any dust.  Then, handling each fruit as gingerly as possible, use a sharp knife to cut off the blossom end.  Peel from there to the stem end. Then cut each fruit in half and carefully scoop out the seeds. Cut what’s left into about four pieces. Repeat until you have a cup full.

Peel and cut the prickly pear fruit.

Peel and cut the prickly pear fruit. Here are the four stages in the preparation.

This dessert is basically milk and cream, firmed up with gelatin,given a little heft with ground almonds and flavored with prickly pear fruit and seasonal berries.  First I’ll show you some photos, then give the recipe.

Get your prickly pear pieces and ground almonds ready first.

Get your prickly pear pieces and ground almonds ready first.

After the cream is whipped, gently  fold in the prickly pear pieces.

After the cream is whipped, gently fold in the prickly pear pieces.

Turn the mixture into a mold or even an 8-inch cake pan.

Turn the mixture into a mold or even an 8-inch cake pan.

Unmold and decorate with fresh berries.

Unmold and decorate with fresh berries.

Intrigued?  Ready for a little bit of a challenge?  Here’s the recipe:

1 ½ cups heavy cream, chilled

¾ cup whole milk, chilled

3 tablespoons ground almonds

½ cup sugar

1 envelope powdered gelatin

½ teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup small (1/4 to 1/2  inch) prickly pear pieces

1 cup of fresh berries

Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and cold water.  Have ready a smaller bowl that fits into the ice-water bath. Whip cream until it holds soft peaks. Refrigerate.

Bring milk, almonds and sugar to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make certain the sugar dissolves.While milk heats, put gelatin and three tablespoons cold water in a microwave safe bowl or small pan  When the gelatin is soft and spongy – around two minutes – heat it in the microwave for 15 seconds. If using a saucepan, cook it over low heat to dissolve. Stir the gelatin into the hot milk mixture and remove pan from heat.

Pour the hot almond milk into the small reserved bowl and set the bowl into the ice-water bath. Stir in almond extract and vanilla extract and continue to stir until the mixlture is cool but still liquid. You don’t want the milk to gel in the bowl.

Retrieve the whipped cream from the refrigerator and gently fold it into the almond milk with a spatula, then fold in the prickly pear pieces. Spoon the mixture into the 8-inch cake pan or the mold and refrigerate until set, about two hours.To make ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to a day.

To easily unmold, put mold upside down over a plate. Dampen a kitchen towel with very hot water and put over the top of the mold until the blanc manger slides out.


Want more recipes for prickly pear and other edible wild desert plants?  You’ll find lots of great ideas in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Ask your local bookstore to order for you or follow the links to order on-line.


Bacanora – our local spirit

Agave plant in the plantation.

Agave plant in the plantation.

This last weekend an importer of bacanora was giving tastes at a Tucson festival. Bacanora is to Sonora as tequila is to Jalisco and mezcal is to Oaxaca.  Bacanora is the third, less-known sister of the triumvirate. Our sample was delicious and smokey with just enough fire to let you know you were drinking.  This is how bacanora is described in Tequila: a natural and cultural history by Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan:

“Bacanora: A bootleg mescal made from the northernmost populations of Agave angustifolia var. Pacifica in sonora and adjacent Chihuahua, sometimes mixed…with A. palmeri. Named for the small rancheria of Bacanora near the pueblo of Sahuaripa, Sonora, this mescal was recently legalized and commercialized, but the clandestine cottage industry product by this name remains the pride of Sonorans.”

Last summer, I visted a mezcal-making exhibit — the process is the same.  These days most manufacturing is done in fancy factories with steel vats and antiseptic conditions.  These pictures show how it is done in the small rancherias.

This is the same method used by Apaches over hundreds of years to prepare agave for food.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

First a large quantity of wood is burned in the rock-lined earth oven. The agave hearts are then added, the whole pit is closed up and the agave is baked from one and one-half to three days.

Baked agave head

Baked agave head.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Once the agave heads are nicely baked and carmelized, they are cooled, unloaded and the leaves are separated.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves. Usually powered by a mule or burro.

The leaves are loaded into the mill, usually of volcanic rock,  and a draft animal goes round and round crushing the baked leaves to a pulp. Next the crushed pulp is loaded into a vat for fermentation. It stays there 6 to 12 days depending on the temperature.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

The next step is to distill the fermented liquid.  In our home process this is done in a simple oven-like still.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid again.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

One of the commerial bacanoras.

One of the commercial bacanoras.

Bacanora has now been legally sold since 1992. Old-timers still have nostalgia for the unmarked bottles obtained with a little stealth from a Mexican rancher friend.

Interested in more recipes for wild desert foods?  Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious mesquite recipes as well as recipes for 22 other easily recognized and gathered southwest plants.  For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.

Food Heritage in Santa Cruz Valley

Today’s post is from Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, which was formed 10 years ago to connect people to the rich cultural and natural heritage of the region by working towards recognition of the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area. Since inception, the Heritage Alliance has created a successful heritage tourism program and a popular heritage foods program. The aim is to increase community awareness of the region’s food traditions and agricultural heritage. Vanessa’s post highlights the heritage foods of the Santa Cruz River Valley which runs from the Arizona/Sonora border to north of Tucson.

Vanessa Bechtol

Vanessa Bechtol


By Vanessa Bechtol, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

The Santa Cruz Valley is perhaps the longest continually cultivated region on the United States, with an agricultural heritage extending back more than 4,000 years.  This agriculture heritage can still be experienced today through the local foods, farm products and livestock grown throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Through our Heritage Foods Program, the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance partners with other local organizations and businesses to increase community awareness of the region’s rich agricultural heritage and food traditions.       

Several traditional Native American foods are cultivated or gathered in the Santa Cruz Valley.  Chiltepin, the wild chile plant that is the ancestor of domesticated chile varieties, grows wild in the canyons near Tumacácori and is cultivated as a fiery condiment.  Other native crops include tepary beans, several types of squashes, a fast-growing, drought-resistant variety of corn, and “devil’s claw,” the fibers of which are used to make baskets.  Wild plant foods gathered from the desert include seed pods of mesquite trees, wild greens, and cactus fruits, buds, and pads.

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Extensive orchards near Green Valley are the leading source of pecans in Arizona.  Red and white wines are made and bottled by several wineries in Sonoita and Elgin, where the climate and soils match those of Mediterranean countries.  Among the varieties grown in local vineyards is the Mission grape, introduced during the Spanish period.  The region also produces a unique dark honey made from the nectars of mesquite blossoms and native wildflowers.  Jellies, syrups, and candies made from cactus fruits are popular with tourists throughout Arizona.

Figs, apples, pomegranates, quinces, grapes, and other fruit stocks introduced during the Spanish period continue to be grown in private gardens and orchards throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Both Tumacacori National Historical Park and the Mission Garden in Tucson have re-established historic orchards with this fruits.

Cattle ranching is the major rural land use in the Santa Cruz Valley. While most ranches raise cattle to ship to feedlots in other states, many local ranches butcher their own beef.  Grass-fed, natural beef (raised on native forage, and using no hormones or antibiotics) is increasing in importance and popularity.  Some conservation breeders raise the Wilbur-Cruce Mission strain of colonial Spanish horses, called Spanish Barbs, descended from horses introduced to region by missionaries and ranchers during the late 1600s.   – VB

A Chance to Participate

For those of you living in Tucson or nearby, Tom Sheridan, author of “Arizona: A History” kicks off the Heritage Speaker Series with a history of the Santa Cruz Valley. Bring your own lunch to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. and join in on January 29 from noon to 1 p.m.  Read more here.

White Sonora Wheat: A Heritage Grains Workshop for Arizona Bakers and Brewers.

If you are a baker, brewer, pastry chef, tortilla maker, or other food enthusiast and are interested in learning about the culinary characteristics of white Sonora wheat during a free 2-hour workshop, please email Vanessa@santacruzheritage.org for workshop details.


Interesting in trying these desert foods?  Find delicious and easy recipes for 23 edible desert plants in my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  For all things prickly pear, both fruit and pads, check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  I teach you what to look for, when to harvest, and how to prepare and serve. Yum!

Nopalpalooza: Phoenix Celebrates Cactus

Nopalpalooza shopping bag

Last week Phoenix veggie lovers and the veggie-curious came out for the Nopalpalooza to celebrate the launch of a new shopping bag featuring cactus pads.  The bag is the second in a series of veggie-themed bags from HipVeggies, the brainchild of Valley of the Sun dietitian Monika Woolsey.  The Phoenix New Times did a piece on her venture that you can read here.

The bag was designed by Phoenix graphic artist Joe Ray and some of the profits from the sales go to the Desert Mission Food Bank.  Monika is so into nopales that she even commissioned a Phoenix baker to make several dozen nopal cookies (just sugar cookies, but very cute.)

I was there, showing people how easy it is to clean nopales and cook them.  Also attending was a delegation from Ramona Farms with some delicious tepary bean dishes.

Steve Dunker and Steve Markt with their mesquite granola at the Nopalpalooza.

There to get feedback for their new venture of making commercial products from mesquite meal were Steve Dunker and Steve Markt.  Markt recently graduated from commercial baking school and had brought some mesquite granola and mesquite-based powerbars to pass out. He hoped to get feedback as he designs his product line.  He is purchasing his mesquite from Mike Moody, who is growing a mesquite plantation over by the Colorado River.

And speaking of mesquite, Tucsonans get ready for the Desert Harvesters (www.desertharvesters.org) annual mesquite grinding.  They will have their hammermill at the Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market at El Mercado on West Congress on November 15 beginning at 3 p.m.  On November 18 they will move to the  Dunbar-Spring community garden beginning at 9 a.m. They’ve already been to Phoenix and Oracle with their hammermill and have conducted a couple of events in Tucson.  So if you still haven’t had your pods ground into silky delicious meal, this is your last chance this year.  In conjuction with the grinding, there will be a bake sale of fabulous mesquite-based goodies with the profits going to support Desert Harvesters. I’m still trying to decide what to take — ginger mesquite cookies? mesquite banana cake?  Or sweet, crumbly scones?  Come out and see!

And if you have your mesquite meal and are wondering about some ideas for what to do with it, check out my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  For inspiration and directions on what wild plants are available in what season, watch a short video here.  

Prickly Pear in Mexico

Prickly pear fruits on display in Sunday market in Chiapas, Mexico

It’s the tail end of the prickly pear fruit season and I hope everyone has laid in their stock of fruit, frozen whole or made into juice.  Prickly pears fruit (tunas) and pads (nopales) are still somewhat exotic in the United States although they have been eaten in the area by the native populations for thousands of years.  In Mexico, however, they are a typical part of the diet, as normal as peaches and green beans are to those of us who live in the more northern areas of the Americas.

The fruits in the photo above are not unripe, they are just a different variety of prickly pear from the bright magenta ones that grow wild in the western United States. The vendor has arranged them artfully to appeal to buyers.

Options in a traditional Oaxaca cafe.

The menu above in a small Oaxaca City cafe shows the list of options with nopal that the cook is offering, from cake, to marmalade to tamales.

                                                           Prepared products with nopal on sale in Mexican market.

Nopal is also used as medicine in Mexico. The health benefits of prickly pear pads have been known by practitioners of  traditional medicine for generations, but recent medical research has shown that eating the pads or nopal actually lowers cholesterol and helps with diabetes. This has led to a slew of new products such as those seen above on display in an outdoor Mexican market.  Some of these products are now available in the United States.

Oaxaca City fresco of woman gathering cochineal from nopal plant.

Although Mexicans have relished the fruit and pads of the prickly pear plant throughout history, they also gathered the tiny cochineal beetles that eat the juice of the fruit.  When crushed and properly prepared, the beetles can make a red dye that resists fading.  The Spanish invaders were excited with this find as the Europeans at that time did not have a good red dye. Since red was the color of kings,  it was important to have a good source. The photo above is a small section of a very large fresco in the municipal building on the zocolo in Oaxaca City.

If you are looking for some good ideas with how to use your prickly pear juice (how many margaritas can you drink?) you’ll find some good recipes in my cookbooks: The Prickly Pear Cookbook,  The New Southwest Cookbook, and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  For some ideas of other plants you can gather watch the video trailer associated with Cooking the Wild Southwest. 

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.


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.