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Eating the Past: Arizona Prickly Pear Cactus

 Prickly pear cactus with red fruits

This is Tammy Proctor, and today we travel to the southwest and
Arizona's Sonoran Desert to explore the amazingly versatile and yummy
prickly pear cactus.

This colorful plant is a staple in indigenous cuisine
of a number of desert dwellers historically, but it is also featured in
Tex-Mex restaurants and in Arizona homes.

So what is the prickly pear cactus? According to the University of
Arizona extension office, it is a plant with 18 different varieties in the
Sonoran Desert region alone. You can find it served on tables as far
away as Australia, but it is largely associated with the Americas.

I have put a photo of one of the most common varieties, the Engelmann prickly
pear, on the UPR website for those who have never seen the plant. Other
varietals have purple, yellow or red flowers, but this version is the one
I've seen the most in Arizona.

The prickly pear has been long prized for its cactus pads (the flat green
parts of the plant) and for its flowers. Beyond being low in fat and
cholesterol, the green "nopales" also are an excellent source of vitamin
C. While the nopales can be harvested in spring, the flowers usually are
not ready until late summer.

Some supermarkets carry fresh nopales or prickly pear fruit, so you might get
them in that way. Southwestern farmer's markets usually have them as well,
and increasingly the nopales are easy to find in jars ready to use. As a vegetarian,
I love going to a restaurant that features nopales in tacos, pupusas, or tortas.

As for the prickly pears, if you are traveling to Monument Valley or other
Southwestern desert locales, be sure to try prickly pear lemonade and
bring home a jar of the jelly.

So, what I thought I'd do for today's episode is describe a couple of quick
recipes that are easy to make no matter where you live. One of them is a
great summer breakfast. First, take a jar or can of prepared nopales –
these are usually called "nopalitos" once they are cut up and prepared.

One easy recipe is for nopalitos and eggs. In a large frying pan, saute two
minced shallots with about ½ teaspoon of salt. When the onions are soft,
add the jar or can of nopalitos and heat through. Next scramble six eggs
and throw them in the pan. I recommend cooking this like a frittata, so
heating most of the way on the stovetop, then sprinkling with shredded
parmesan and putting under a broiler on high until lightly brown. Make
sure the eggs are fully set up. then you can slice it and serve it with
your favorite bread.

A second recipe that comes from a cookbook developed by the
organization, partnership with Native Americans, is for a nopales salad. I
have altered it slightly to make it even easier.

First, drain two cans of mandarin oranges (preferably the ones in orange juice,
not syrup) and place in a large bowl. add two cans or jars of nopalitos and one
jar of roasted red peppers. stir around, then add the dressing, which is one
minced jalapeno pepper, three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, two tablespoons
of a berry jam, one teaspoon Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and red chile
flakes to taste. Stir the whole mix and top with a handful of roasted
pumpkin seeds. serve.

Both of these dishes show off the versatility of the nopales and they are
each a satisfying and completely simple preparation for any house. The
prickly pear recipes are a bit more difficult, so I think your best option is
to purchase some commercially produced prickly pear jelly in a jar.

If you do so, plan to have some good whole wheat toast on hand when you
make the nopales and eggs – you can top the toast with the jelly and
have a complete experience of this Arizona plant.

I have placed links to some recipes for Arizona cooking and for more
information about the prickly pear cactus on the website at website.

Stay tuned next week for a new state in our tour of the United

Additional Resources:

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.