Late summer cactus foraging
Dude Ranch Dream
Last weekend I lived out my dude ranch dream at Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, where I rode well-trained horses, ate gourmet cowboy grub and harvested the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Late summer is prickly pear harvest season and I thought I’d share some tips about foraging the colorful fruit that you can use in cocktails, desserts or even BBQ sauces.
Tanque Verde Ranch
At Tanque Verde Ranch, we used long, stainless steel utility tongs that you would find in the kitchen. They helped us reach across the prickly pear plant and avoid the menacing needles. I searched for the fruit – also called tuna – that had a deep, dark magenta color with no green remaining. The color indicates that the prickly pears are sweet and ready for harvest.
Prickly pear cactus grows throughout the Tanque Verde Ranch, but you’ll see more vibrant color on the prickly pear fruit on the grounds near the front lawn and surrounding buildings. That’s because those plants get more water.
Harvesting prickly pear fruit
The fruit grows on the highest paddles (or nopales) of the prickly pear and these were the size of small kiwi fruit. White spots on the prickly pear look like fungus, but it’s actually the residue of a small bug that burrows into the green cactus paddles. A natural dye is made from the tunneling insects and is used in textiles, pharmaceuticals and other products. The bug dye produces crimson and scarlet colors. We had to be careful not to touch the fruit in an effort to avoid the annoying cactus spikes, but also to dodge staining our fingers with deep reddish purple.
Although the micro spines that cover the fruit and paddles are extremely irritating, they will eventually work themselves out of your skin if you happen to get a few in your fingers, arms or legs while harvesting. Of course, long pants and sleeves would help protect you from the irritation. It is also wise to watch for snakes and bring water, a hat and sunscreen when going out to harvest prickly pear fruit.
Twisting tuna with tongs
We picked the ripe fruit by twisting the tuna slightly with the tongs to break it off the paddle. We picked one fruit at a time to fill our galvanized buckets that we carried with us as we meandered around the ranch situated in the Sonoran Desert.
In about one hour our buckets were full and heavy and we were ready to get out of the sun. Just before noon the other prickly pear foragers and I reconvened in one of the ranch’s commercial kitchens to help Executive Sous Chef Janet Hoogasian prepare the raw fruit pods.
|Executive Sous Chef Janet Hoogasian|
Prickly Pear Margaritas
“Here at the ranch, we’re well known for our Prickly Pear Margaritas, so we have to pick a lot of prickly pears,” said the chef. “It takes about 35 pods to get one-third of a cup,” she said. Only one to two ounces of prickly pear juice will give you the vibrant color a margaritas or other drink.
Chef Janet prepares the juice and sauces and freezes them for the rest of the year. Prickly pear’s taste is slightly sweet and fruity, but sugars – agave, honey, or cane sugar – are typically added to sweeten the wild food that is high in vitamin B, iron, amino acids and magnesium.
First, we placed the prickly pear pods into a large colander and sprayed all the bugs off with water using the sprayer on the sink. Then we rinsed the fruit under the water faucet and repeatedly swirled the heavy batch to take off the micro spikes. The fruit knocking against each other in the colander helps to rub off those prickly micro fibers.
This process doesn’t remove all the spikes, so we donned leather gloves over the typical disposal food service gloves so we could handle the spiky fruit. On the cutting board, we sliced off the tips of the pods and then made a short incision into the tough skin to cut a slit from end to end. That allowed us to peel off the thick skin with the edge of the knife. Since the interior flesh is slippery, we had to take caution while extracting the juicy pulp.
Breaking down the fruit like this takes a lot of detailed knife work, but the end result is a ranch-made sauce or juice made without additives or preservatives. “You know exactly what went into it: time, effort and love,” smiled Chef Janet, who is part of the Gastronomic Union of Tucson.
The skinned fruit went into a large pot, where we added a little water and set it on low heat to simmer. Soon, the aroma of plums rose from the simmering concoction while Chef Janet skimmed off cactus spikes that floated to the surface and stuck to the sides of the pot with a strainer ladle.
Besides being used as an important ingredient for margaritas, prickly pear juice is also used in the Tanque Verde Ranch’s BBQ sauce. “You can do all kinds of flavor profiles with prickly pear because of its mild flavor,” the chef explained. That day she added honey, a cinnamon stick and cloves to the cooking fruit to be used in the evening’s desert. “You can use it in shaved ice, a glaze for pork chops or an icing for a dessert that will have that awesome color. Prickly pear has a very light flavor, so you can add other things and take it up a notch.”
After simmering the fruit pulp, Chef Janet put it through a sieve and returned it to the pot to simmered some more. She repeated sieving several times to remove prickly pear needles and seeds. In the final stage, chef poured the reduction through cheese cloth. What she didn’t use for the evening’s desserts was frozen for later.
|Tanque Verde Ranch’s signature Prickly Pear Margarita|
“We always think we have enough, but every year that I’ve been here, we run out by January,” laughed Denise, a banquet bartender who has worked at the ranch almost five years. Denise and another mixologist were demonstrating how to use prickly pear juice in cocktails in a session at the on-site Dog House Saloon after lunch. We sampled a Prickly Pear Mimosa, a Prickly Pear Whiskey Sour, a Cosmo that substituted the cranberry juice for what else, prickly pear, and of course the ranch’s signature Prickly Pear Margarita.
Join the Harvest
Take part in the second harvest happening August 23-26, 2018. Rates starting at $435/night includes:
• Arizona accommodations with three hearty meals daily
• specialty prickly pear menu items
• harvest prickly pears
• learn and partake in prickly pear processing
• prickly pear cooking demos
• prickly pear t-shirts for all guests
• supervised children’s program (ages 4-11)
• horseback trail riding and lessons
• scheduled breakfast rides and cowboy cookouts
• fishing, guided hikes, nature programs, mountain biking, bingo and many other family activities
For Tanque Verde Ranch’s BBQ and margarita recipes go to www.tanqueverderanch.com/prickly-pear-recipes
Have you used Prickly Pear in any of your recipes? Or have you tried Prickly Pear fruit, which is considered a super food? Has this article inspired you to go out and do some desert foraging? If so, leave you comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 East Speedway
Tucson, AZ; 800-234-3833
“Unstoppable” Stacey Wittig is a an Arizona travel writer and food writer who pens from her home in Flagstaff, Arizona. Explore the world with her by subscribing to this blog.