It’s Carolyn Niethammer with you this April Friday, my favorite time of year when the Sonoran Desert is bursting with life. The rains weren’t as heavy as El Niño had promised, but there was enough moisture so that our arid-adapted plants could produce a colorful and abundant spring. When I was a young reporter for the Arizona Daily Star we used to have a feature called “Everybody Cooks.” I loved going out into the community and talking to good cooks from all walks of life — Mexican nanas, musicians, business owners, Jewish homemakers — about what they made for holidays and everyday family meals. I recalled those good times earlier this month at the Native Seeds/SEARCH Arid Abundance Potluck.
People arrived at the Arid Abundance Potluck with so many creative uses of the delicacies of a Sonoran desert spring that I just had to document the event.
Chad Borseth, the manager of the NS/S retail store, started us out with a cholla bud appetizer. There’s an old joke about how a cook made chicken soup in 1880. It starts: first you catch the chicken. This is sort of like that. You do have to harvest, clean (meaning remove the thorns) and dry the cholla buds. Or you can go the the NS/S store and buy some already cleaned and dried. Chad boiled the dried cholla buds for about 45 minutes, drained them and then chilled them in white balsamic vinegar overnight. When he was ready to serve them at the potluck he cut each of them in half and arranged them on a plate and drizzled them with prickly pear syrup. Toothpicks are handy for picking up the delicious little morsels.
Nancy Reid, a retail associate at the NS/S store, brought a green chile and cholla bud quiche that she had modified from a recipe in a wonderful but out-of-print NS/S cookbook. She began by melting a tablespoon of butter in the bottom of an 8-inch round pan. In a bowl, she beat 4 eggs. Then she added 3/4 cup cooked cholla buds, 3/4 cup chopped green chiles, 1 cup of cottage cheese, 2 cups of shredded colby/jack cheese, and a little salt. It went in the oven at 325 degrees F. for 40 minutes.
What’s a southwestern meal without salsa? Laura Neff’s version includes 1/2 cup dried cholla buds boiled for 45 minutes and drained, 1/2 cup diced tomatoes, 1/4 cup diced red onion, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 1-2 finely minced jalapenos, and 1 tablespoon of lime juice. She combined everything except the cholla buds in a food processor. The cholla buds were chopped by hand and added at the end.
My friend Connie Lauth wasn’t at the potluck but she made this gorgeous quiche recently for company. Connie lives on the desert at the very end of a road into the Tucson Mountains. While Chad and Laura used dried and reconstituted cholla buds, Connie just walked out her door and picked some fresh ones. She used nopalitos from Food City but by now there are plenty of fresh, new-growth prickly pear pads ready for harvest.
Here’s Connie’s recipe:
Connie’s Desert Pie
1 cup of cholla buds
1 cup of nopalitos
½ cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
4 large eggs
1/2 cup milk,
1 ½ teaspoons pico de gallo seasoning
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh cilantro
1 frozen deep dish pie shell
1 cup shredded Mexican cheese
Dethorn cholla buds by holding them with tongs and burning them off over a gas stove.. Rinse. Microwave in a covered dish on high for 4 minutes.
Cut gathered or purchased nopalitos into 1/4-inch dice. Microwave with red bell peppers for about 4 minutes. In a bowl, beat eggs and milk, add seasonings. Layer egg mixture with vegetables and cheese in the pie shell. Bake at 400 degrees about 40 minutes until a knife inserted in center comes out clean
If you are inspired to try your hand at more desert gathering and cooking, my book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicous Recipes for Desert Plants can be your guide to 23 easily recognized, gathered and cooked desert edibles. If you want to harvest some nopales (prickly pear pads), you can find lots of recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook. Both books are available in the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store at 3061 N. Campbell or on their website. The books are also available from Amazon and B&N.