With so much plenty around us in the desert–like this glorious staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor)–2-leggeds can be rewarded while social-distancing with healthy outdoor exercise and super nutrition. Read on…… (MABurgess photo)
The cholla bloom is in full swing! The low desert in Baja Arizona continues to explode with color late April into early May, with several species of cholla cactus punctuating the landscape colorfully with a rainbow of colors-and a fiesta of flavor. When the first flower buds open on cholla, traditional O’odham harvesters knew this short window of time is for feasting on this nutritious food, and for drying and storing enough for the rest of the year.
Tia Marta here to share creative and fun ideas for the generous harvest available without getting near a grocery. For detailed “how-to” ideas, view this earlier SavortheSouthwest post and a short video from a NativeSeedsSEARCH workshop.
Why harvest unopened buds? Note how loosely opening petals grab spines and don’t let go. After brushing and screening off spines, cleaned buds must be boiled or roasted before eating. (MABurgess photo)
Enjoy my article A Budding Meal _ Martha Ames Burgess EdibleBajaAZ 2014 explaining how Tohono O’odham Elder Juanita Ahil harvested cholla, or, check out www.desertharvesters.org for guidance.
Jambalaya a la Cholla made with andouille sausage, sauteed garlic and celery, cooked cholla buds, served with brown rice. Find great jambalaya recipes online–just add prepared cholla buds!
Jambalaya a la Cholla was our centerpiece dinner shared on Zoom with pals.
When you venture into harvesting, be sure to start with three awarenesses: giving thanks for this plentiful gift from the desert, watching for snakes, and checking the wind for where spines might blow.
These off-the-wall ideas for sure are not traditional ways of cooking cholla. Hopefully these ideas can inspire you to get creative with cholla. As desert dwellers we should all have a deep respect for this much ignored or maligned cactus. Cholla reminds us that there is no time for boredom.
Try diluting the pucker-up sourness of sauerkraut by adding chunks of apple, caraway seed, and…tah-dah…cooked cholla buds for a wonderful addition!
Try this variation on a favorite comfort food–Add prepared cholla buds to creamed chicken or chicken stew.
Using a simple dill pickling recipe online, I packed 20-minute-boiled buds into canning jars with snips of fresh oregano and I’itoi’s onion from my garden, then filled jars with a cider vinegar and spice mix. After a 15-minute waterbath jars were ready for storage or use as gourmet hors d’oeuvres.
Deviled eggs made with chopped pickled cholla buds are a perfect hot-weather lunch or unusual buffet feature. Try spicing up your deviled eggs with curry powder for a great complement to cholla!
If planning for future food is on your mind, consider drying your cholla buds. Compare sizes on my drying screen of freshly boiled buds (right) and tiny, stone-hard dry buds(left) ready for storage. If fully dried patiently over several days, buds will keep for years in a glass jar.
For the best in local libation to allay woes of social distancing, quaff a Sonoran quarantini made with Tucson’s ThreeWells Mt.Lemmon gin and garnished with a pickled cholla bud in place of an olive, plus a bulb of I’itoi’s onion. It can’t get more festively flavorful and local than that!
Read more about traditional cholla bud use by Native cultures in Dr.Wendy Hodgson’s Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert (University of Arizona Press). Find more cactus cookery ideas in Cooking the Wild Southwest by Savor-Sister Carolyn Niethammer (also UofA Press).
Tia Marta wishes you happy cholla harvesting in our beautiful desert spring!
Dried cholla buds are available online at www.nativeseeds.org and at www.flordemayoarts.com. You can find them also at the SanXavier Co-op. For cooking with the sun on these hot days, order handy solar ovens at www.flordemayoarts.com or check craigslist for used solar ovens.