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.

Nopales Are Ready

Nopales are ready when they are the size of your hand.

It seemed like the nopales (prickly pear cactus stems) were late this year — or maybe I was just anxious for them to appear.  The native species out on the desert began putting out new growth weeks ago, but the Ficus indica, the large Mexican variety didn’t have anything large enough to pick– at least in my yard — until about a week ago.

Nopal stems are very healthy — full of all the sorts of vitamins you find in most vegetables with the added bonus of some gums and fibers that are helpful in regulating the blood glucose levels for people with  non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.  The fiber helps, of course, but there is something else going on that researchers haven’t yet been able to figure out.  Prickly pear, both the pads and fruit, seems to increase sensitivity to insulin through some unexplained process.  About 100 grams, around two medium-sized pads, before each meal  will do the trick.  That could be with eggs for breakfast, in a burrito for lunch and maybe with some other vegetables for dinner.

Many people eat the pads fresh and sliced into a salad — that is one of the classic preparations.  I prefer them cooked. They can be sauteed in a frying pan, grilled over coals or lightly coated with oil and baked.  But first they need to be cleaned of whatever thorns are present.  The photos below show how to remove the thorns with a common steak knife, going against the direction of growth.  Put a little muscle into it.  Then trim off the stem end which could be tough and trim off the edge.  Once you chop it into small pieces you have nopalitos.

Cleaning off the thorns.

Trimming the edge.

Chopping into nopalitos.

As you cook the nopalitos, they will shrink as they lose water.  This reduces the gummy texture.  They all change color from bright green to olive.

Sizzling noplalitos ready to eat.

Now you have  nopalitos that you can combine with other ingredients into delicious recipes.  You can stir them into commercial or homemade salsa, scramble with eggs,  or include with roast chicken to roll into a burrito.  You can find delicious recipes for Nopalitos and Chicken in Culichi Sauce,   and other simple-to-prepare gourmet dishes in my latest cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.   There are also both classic and innovative  recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  How do Grilled Chicken with Noplito and Pineapple Salsa or Jicama and Nopalito Salad sound?  Yum!  Below is a photo of  French Green Lentil Salad with Nopalitos from Cooking the Wild Southwest. 

French Green Lentil Salad with Nopalitos

If you have a favorite preparation using nopalitos,  please share it here with me and the other readers.  Nopalitos are mild tasting and there are endless ideas for including them in dishes.  What is the best nopalito dish you ever ate?

Chile Heaven

Dena Rupp in her shop

Whether you are cooking a wild food like nopalitos or putting together a Three Sisters soup of corn, beans and squash, the extra indispensable ingredient is chile — the red of a ripe Anaheim, the deep green of a thick-walled poblano, or a brownish crackling dry guajillo.  And the place to find chile sauces all ready for your creations is Dena Rupp’s shop, Wild West Hot Sauce,  in Traildust Town on the east side of Tucson.  Dena is beginning her fourth year in this location. 

 It is a tiny shop, but Dena carries around a hundred different products and the variety is incredible — I circled several times and found something new to catch my eye each time I passed and re-passed a shelf.  Among the amusing offerings are Habanero Potato Chips, Hot Flash roasted green chile paste,  and super-hot jelly beans.  Ass Kickin’ Peanuts come in chipotle-honey, jalapeno-cheddar and honey with habanero. And of course there are all the delicious products from Cheri’s Desert Harvest.  For me, the most unusual product was Frostbite, a completely clear hot sauce made for adding to drinks without changing their color or giving them a foggy look. 

Dena buys locally made products when she can. Among those are the Poblano brand of hot sauces that have been made in Tucson since 1924 and Pecan Barbecue Sauce from Sahuarita.  

Dena has tucked a few surprises around the chile products — some antiques and collectables, a little art, some sculpture.
Because Traildust Town comes alive at night with its restaurants, mini-train and mock gunfights, Dena opens at 5 p.m. and welcomes customers until about 9 or 10 p.m.

Pick your favorite chile for these peanuts.


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