Tag Archives: cactus pears

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.


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. 

Southwest Foods: Wild Desert Party


Sampling delicious foods at the Native Seeds/SEARCH demonstration this week.

If you are shopping for tepary  beans, mesquite flour, prickly pear syrup, quinoa — or even something as exotic as dried cholla buds, the Native Seeds/SEARCH shop is the place to head.  Now settled in a beautiful new store at 3061 N. Campbell, with plentiful parking, Native Seeds/SEARCH has all those  foods and more.  They’ll also sell you the books that will tell you how to prepare what you buy including my books Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants and The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  And of course, true to their original calling, they offer a wide selection of seeds, mostly for food, that have been adapted over the centuries to do well in the harsh growing conditions in the Southwest. They also produce a terrific catalog so folks who can’t visit the store can shop

On January 16, Janet Taylor, author of The Healthy Southwest Cookbook, and I shared the stage at the monthly Native Seeds/ SEARCH salon, demonstrating how to cook some of the healthy bounty sold in the store.  I made a yummy prickly pear salad dressing with walnut oil, raspberry vinegar and prickly pear syrup. Perfect over a salad of greens, winter pears, red grapes and walnuts.  I also demonstrated a snack I call Aztec Delight, after reading in a book called Chia how the Aztecs combined ground amaranth and chia seeds and moistened the mixture with black maguey syrup. I figured that modern agave syrup would do, and it is indeed delicious.  Not leaving well enough alone, I rolled the balls in melted semisweet chocolate (that’s Aztec, too!)  Janet cooked teparies and blue cornbread and spoke about their health properties. After the talks, we treated our guests to a real feast. 

Aztec Delight: amaranth, chia, agave syrup and chocolate

Prickly Pear Cactus Treats from Cheri’s Desert Harvest

Cheri Romanoski making prickly pear cactus candy in her Tucson factory

Cheri Romanoski – petite, always charming, and incredibly inventive – is the reigning queen of prickly pear in Southern Arizona.  Back in the early 1980s, she began preserving fruit such as prickly pear and the citrus that grew near her Tucson home. By 1985, she had rented a small facility and began her business, Cheri’s Desert Harvest. Cheri makes a range of delicious jams, candies and jellies, but what she is most known for is her prickly pear jelly, syrup and candy.

            Every fall, Cheri’s staff harvests 70,000 pounds of the deep magenta Englemann prickly pears. Of course she can’t process all that right away, so the harvest is frozen and cooked throughout the year. Then it is shipped throughout the country to gift shops, grocery stores and top-end restaurants. Famous chef Bobby Flay uses Cheri’s prickly pear syrup in margaritas at this Burger Palace and Mesa Grill.  Customers who can’t buy her products locally can order off of her Cheris Desert  Harvest website.

            Cheri generously shared her recipe for her Arizona Sunrise Muffins with me for use in The Prickly Pear Cookbook

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 – 8 ounce jar Cheri’s Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly

Preheat oven to 400 (375 for convection oven). Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together and set aside. Mix oil, egg and milk and add to dry ingredients. Stir until moistened. Batter will be lumpy. Fill greased muffin tins half full. Place 1 teaspoon of jelly in the exact center of each muffin, with jelly not touching edges. Add remaining batter, covering jelly, so the tins are two-thirds full. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Do you have a favorite use for prickly pear syrup or jelly?  Do share in the comments section.