Today’s post is by Jacqueline Soule.
Here in the Southwest, there are more than enough native plants to grow that will also provide food for the table – at least partially. One that has a hidden bounty at this time of year is the barrel cactus. Barrel cactus is the generic term for a number of species of large barrel-shaped cacti. The one with the most edible of fruit is the fish hook or compass barrel (Ferocactus wizlizenii). This barrel cactus is unlike many other species of cacti in that it often blooms two or even three times per year, thus providing you, the harvester, with ample fruits, often several times a year.
After the blooms, the fruit slowly develop, turning from green to yellow when ripe. They are easy to harvest, simply grasp the stiff spent flower that remains on the fruit and pull. The fruit comes right off when ripe. If you have to apply great force, Mama barrel cactus is telling you this fruit is still green and she is not ready to cut the apron strings.
You can eat the lemony flavored fruit, but only in moderation. Fruit is high in oxalic acid, which can be hard on human systems. I do dry the fruit and use them as I brew iced tea – in place of lemon. You can also mix the dried fruit with dried hibiscus blooms to make a delightfully tart and refreshing summer drink.
As I cut open the fruits, I do harvest the seeds – which are safe to consume in quantity. They are the size, texture and taste of poppy seeds and can be used anywhere you use poppy seeds. Like poppy seeds, they are best when toasted for 30 to 45 minutes at 300 degrees F. Toasting them makes them a easier to crunch open so you can digest them more fully.
For a gluten-free treat, try this: “Lemon Barrel-Seed Cake”
1 cup flax seed meal
2 teaspoons alum-free baking powder
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons barrel-fruit seed, toasted
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
2 tablespoons sweetening – to taste (honey, brown sugar, agave syrup – your choice)
1 tablespoon oil (olive oil, butter, coconut oil – your choice)
Mix the dry ingredients, add the wet ones, blend well and pour into a glass loaf pan. Microwave for at least 3 minutes, and perhaps up to 4 minutes. It takes 3 minutes 15 seconds in our microwave. Run a knife around the edges and tip it out of the pan right away. ((I just thought, maybe you can grease the cooking dish?! I will have to try that!)) Optionally you can frost this cake once it cools or drizzle it with a light icing. Makes a quite elegant coffee cake. You can also cut this recipe down to one quarter (one egg) and cook it for one minute in a microwave safe mug to make a single serving muffin.
Barrel fruit are an often overlooked fruit by desert harvesters, but hopefully this article will give you some ideas for their use. Please feel free to share your ideas! If you are concerned about the oxalic acid in the fruit, you could pluck the fruit, scoop out the seeds and return the fruit to the desert for the native wildlife to enjoy, much the way you harvest saguaro fruit. Just be certain that the fruit lands open side up to help encourage the rains.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my many free lectures. Look for me at the Pima County Library, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and more. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).
All photos and text are copyright © 2014, Jacqueline Soule. All rights reserved. I have received many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you are free to use a very short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos may not be used. Please use the contact me if you have any questions.