Tag Archives: prickly pear

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.

Bees: Our Garden Partners

Bee on Mt. Lemmon

Bee on Mt. Lemmon

I’ve been spending lots of time outdoors the last couple of weeks, working in my vegetable garden and hiking looking for spring edible wild plants.  Because of the all the attention on bees lately, I’ve been particularly aware of them and their role as the silent partners in my gardening and plant health in general.

Until recently when I considered bees, I thought of honey bees. They are actually an import from Europe and are the variety most associated with colony collapse disorder. (watch a video on this here)  Nobody is 100 percent sure of all the reasons for colony collapse disorder, but experts are fairly sure that part of the cause is related to agriculture chemicals. In fact, a speaker recently said that cities are currently the safest place for bees – agricultural lands are much too toxic! The grumpy and dangerous Africanize bees are a strain of honey bees.


But in the Sonoran Desert we also have at least 1,000 species of native bees.  According to an Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website, “the region around Tucson is thought to host more kinds of bees than anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception of some deserts in Israel.”

The site goes on to say: “ Sonoran Desert bees range in size from the world’s smallest bee, Perdita minima, which is less than .08 inches (2 mm) to carpenter bees (the genus Xylocopa), gentle giants that may have body lengths of almost 1½ inches (40 mm) and weigh over a gram. Our native bees burrow into the ground or create nests inside hollow, pithy, dried stems or abandoned tunnels left by wood-boring beetles. All bees are herbivorous except for parasitic forms that prey on other bees.”  You can read more about what the Desert Museum has to say about bees here .

Female Carpenter Bee

Female Carpenter Bee

If you are a gardener, you know that your squash and pumpkin flowers need to be pollinated if you are going to have vegetables. Carpenter bees like the one above nest in dead trees and pollinate squash, eggplant, cotton, tomoatoes, mesquite, prickly pears and other local flowers. If there aren’t bees around to help pollinate your garden,  you have to get out there with a Q-tip and do it yourself. You can avoid this chore by attracting more bees to your garden with a bee box.  Tucson Botanical Gardens has directions on how to build one here.

(Linda McKittrick took all the lovely bee photos. )


Kids Help Kids Learn About Native Plants

Nate Whitthorne demonstrates mesquite grinding on metate to elementary students

Nate Whitthorne demonstrates mesquite grinding on metate to Ventana Vista elementary students.

I was in junior high when I first picked prickly pears with my parents and in my mid-twenties when I joined in the hippie-era enthusiam for learning about wild plants and trying to live off the land.  All of us from that time are getting a bit gray now, so it was with great excitement that I learned that Nate Whitthorne and his younger brother Sam were not only learning about native uses for wild plants, but also teaching what they know to younger children.

Nate and Sam live with their parents Elizabeth and Perry on a beautiful piece of Sonoran Desert on Tucson’s far east side. Right outside their back door are mesquite and palo verde trees, barrel, cholla and saguaro cactus, and even a wolfberry bush.  Their mom and dad originally learned about native plants from a class at the Desert Museum. They also bought my book American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest on native uses of desert plants  and tried some of the old-time recipes they found there.

Sam and Nate Whitthorne in their desert backyard.

Sam and Nate Whitthorne in their desert backyard.

In October, Nate and Sam took their knowledge on the road as they represented Tucson Botanical Gardens at the Ventana Vista Elementary School Plant Science Family Night.  Inspired by the Botanical Gardens Native Plants-Native Peoples curriculum, they showed the younger children how to grind mesquite pods on a metate, how to make fiber from agave leaves, and how to dye cloth with crushed cochineal beetles from prickly pear cactus.

Pounding agave to make fiber.

Pounding agave to make fiber.

native foods display

No one expect folks living in the 21st century to exist on wild foods — there are too many of us and it’s not the way we eat today.  And yet Nate and Sam understand that helping younger students learn  what fruits and pods are edible and the other uses of desert plants helps them appreciate the history of the people who lived here before us. Understanding the hidden wealth of the desert  helps all of us feel more connected to our environment.  By seeing not just thorns and stickers when we look at desert plants, but also delicious food and fiber and dye, we look at the desert landscape as something precious to be protected rather than bladed to make way for another shopping center or housing development.  How exciting that that the next generation is getting as much pleasure from learning about desert plants as we did when we were young.

Want more ideas for using desert plants in delicious foods?  Check out my books The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest. 

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. 

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. 

Look Who’s Cooking with Nopalitos

Jim Hastings during a nopalito demonstration.

It’s always exciting to encounter someone as passionate about edible wild plants as I am.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Jim Hastings from El Paso, Texas,  who calls himself The Gringo Gourmet.  He gave several  demonstrations on cooking with nopalitos at the recent convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society held in Tucson.   I wasn’t attending the meeting but a friend called and said, “You’ve got to come down tomorrow and meet this guy.”

I found a true believer and a genuine nice fellow who has been bitten by the cactus bug.  Here’s Jim’s recipe for Nopales and Green Chile Tart:

1 package puff pastry

1 cup nopalitos diced to 1/4-inch

2 tablespoons olive or canola oil

1 cup peeled and seeded roasted green chiles, diced to 1/4-inch

1/2 cup peeled and seeded roasted red bell pepper, roughly chopped

2-3 finely chopped garlic cloves

8 ounces whipped cream cheese

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Open puff pastry and set out to thaw according to package instructions.  Saute nopalitos in oil until army green and slime has evaporated.  Let cool.  Stir together cooled nopalitos, green chile and garlic.

Unfold puff pastry onto a baking sheet. Moisten seam between sheets and seal together.  Trim dough to fit pan, using trimmings to fill sides.  Lightly score around perimeter of dough about 1/4 inch.

Blend oregano into whipped cream cheese.  Spread cheese mixture evenly over dough inside the score line.  Spread nopalitos, chile and garliclmixture over cheese.  sprinkle red peppers over green chile.

Bake at 400 degrees F. for 10-12 minutes  until pastry puffs and is golden.  Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes. Then cut into 2-inch squares and enjoy.

Here is a photo of some of  Jim’s food.  You can spot the nopalitos.

Sampling of Jim’s nopalito dishes.

Into the Mainstream

I was also surprised to find a recipe for Garden Salsa Jam using nopalitos in the June issue of “Better Homes and Gardens.”  It was submitted by Jean Groen of Apache Junction, Arizona, a small town south of Phoenix.  I couldn’t find it on-line so can’t provide a link.  A Google search of Mrs. Groen shows she has a home ec background and has written a book on the edible plants of the Superstition Mountains near Apache Junction.  The recipe in the magazine calls for jarred nopalitos, but I’m guessing that was an addition by the editors to make it possible for folks outside the Southwest to try it.  When nopalitos, fresh or jarred,  make it into “Better Homes and Gardens magazine,” they are well on their way into the mainstream.


You can find more recipes for nopalitos in my books The Prickly Pear Cookbook (Rio Nuevo Press)  and Cooking the Wild Southwest (University of Arizona Press), as well as complete instructions on how to gather, clean and prepare the cactus stems.