Welcome the late summer monsoon time of plenty! You can feel life burgeoning. The desert is vibrant with productive greenery. Its birds and mammals are foraging in delight. Spade-foot toads are up and singing their sheep-like song again! It is time to pick prickly pears and put up their bounty for another year.
Tia Marta here to share encouragement for those who want to venture into desert harvesting (and an idea for veteran-harvesters too.)
Be not afraid! Just be aware. When walking among spiny prickly pear cacti, don’t wear loose clothing or it is sure to pick up spines that return to haunt you in the oddest ways. Use long, accurately-grabbing tongs for picking prickly pear fruits (aka “tunas”). Go for the darkest purple fruits, leaving ones with a greenish base to harvest later, or for the wildlife. Polkadots on the fruit (called areoles) are each covered with tiny hairlike spines called glochids. Needless to say, they are a real nuisance and pain. Veteran harvesters get used to pulling glochids out of their skin with their incisors, which can be more accurate or faster than tweezers. [For better or worse, I’m resigned to having a few festering little glochids in my fingers during the entire harvest season–like oh well, it’s worth it!]
I de-spine my tunas under running water with a scrubby (such as Scotchbrite) dedicated to that sole purpose. I’m careful to only use one side of the scrubby while cleaning all my fruits, then, when done, it’s into the trash. Some people swear by using heavy rubber gloves. I prefer not to destroy gloves, preferring rather to have control that unfettered hands with tongs afford.
After de-spining, cut your tunas in half and scoop out the little hard seeds. My Tohono O’odham mentor taught me to just use the thumb, as it can feel where the seeds are hiding. Make sure ALL seeds are washed out, as you do not want to encounter them with your teeth in a pleasant bite of your coffeecake.
Inspired by Carolyn Niethammer’s Prickly Pear Cookbook (Univ. of Arizona Press), I’ve designed a Sonoran Desert prickly pear muffin and coffeecake recipe that celebrates the additional flavors and nutrition of mesquite meal and heirloom white Sonora wheat flour.
RECIPE: Prickly Pear,-Mesquite-White Sonora Wheat Muffins and Coffeecake
(Ihbhai c Kui Wihog Pas-tihl)
1/4 cup mesquite flour or meal
3/4 cup heirloom white Sonora wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup butter melted, or oil
1/4 cup sugar OR agave nectar
1 lg or 2 small eggs
1/3 cup milk or almond milk or soy milk
1 cup fresh prickly pear chunks
Directions: Prepare fresh prickly pear chunks according to visual instructions above. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease and flour a small baking dish or 8-10 medium size muffin cups. Sift all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, cream butter; add sugar or agave nectar; beat in egg(s). Add wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Fold in prickly pear chunks and any juice into batter. Spoon batter into baking dish, patting gently, or into muffin tins filling to half. Bake 20 minutes or until turning golden on top. This coffeecake is not super-sweet. It can be served hot with jam for breakfast and tea, or cool with a little scoop of vanilla yogurt or ice cream for dessert. Great nutrition and natural flavors!
What a wonderful way to celebrate the season with desert wild-food gifts! Enthusiastic thanks to Tohono O’odham families for sharing their traditional food ideas.
It’s up to YOU to harvest your own fresh ihbhai. As for finding mesquite flour and heirloom white Sonora wheat flour, go to NativeSeedsSEARCH or http://www.nativeseeds.org; http://www.flordemayoarts.com; San Xavier Coop Association; http://www.desertharvesters.org; http://www.bkwazgrown.com; or http://www.HaydenFlourMills.com.
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This is wonderful, thank you! I want, at some point, to grow prickly pears in my garden – but for the pads, not the fruit. I don’t think they will fruit in my cold climate! But now I know what to do if they ever do!