Wild Things in September - Prickly Pear

Welcome to Wild Things in September! This month we will be celebrating the Opuntia spp., known commonly as prickly pear. Don't let the stickers scare you away! This is a food that has been eaten for ages. And if you've never tasted prickly pear fruit, you are in for a real treat!

How to Identify Prickly Pear Cactus

These little critters are surprisingly common.  They grow in all of the mainland 48, and even range up into parts of Canada (my friends elsewhere in the world, let me know in the comments if you have prickly pear cactus as well!).  Look for flattened oval pad, which grow one from another, and can either trail along the ground or upright.  They may be only a few inches tall, or grow taller than a person.  In bloom, prickly pear cactus bear showy waxy flowers that can be yellow, orange, red, or pink.

Prickly pears are usually defended by long pointy spines.  It is the less obvious glocids that you have to watch out for, though.  The glocids are smaller stickers that grow in clusters on small circles of flesh called areoles across the entire surface of the cactus pad.  The glocids can be nearly invisible, and have a nasty habit of finding their way into your skin.

The fruit of prickly pear cactus, also known as tunas, grow at the edge of the terminal pads.  The fruit are ripe when they turn a deep reddish purple.  Beware that they are also covered with glocids.

How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Pads and Fruit

Two words of caution, kids - use protection!  I like to harvest prickly pear cactus pads and fruit wearing thick leather gloves and a set of tongs.  I use my tongs to grip the pad, and then cut it off about an inch above the base, which allows the plant to regrow.  Younger pads are better.  The fruit is fairly easy to pluck off the pads.

The absolute key to enjoying this plant is in proper preparation.  Having even one glocid lodge in your tongue or throat will ruin prickly pears for you for life.  To prepare the pad, first cut off the rim, which will remove most of the large spines.  Next, use a knife to scrape off each individual areole and its glocids. As an added measure, lightly scrub the surface of the pad under running water.  From there, the pads can be grilled or roasted whole, or sliced into strips (nopalitos) and cooked.  They taste like a tangy green bean.

The fruit of prickly pears, or tunas, are best cleaned of their glocids by scrubbing, and rinsing with running water. Pay extra attention to the rim near the flowering end of the fruit, where most of the glocids are. From there, the tunas can be skinned and their bright pink flesh enjoyed.  Just be certain to strain out the seeds.  I like to whiz up the fruit in a food processor, then strain out the seeds with a sieve.  I think tunas taste like watermelon crossed with tutti fruity.

One other note - the flowers of this plant are edible.  But they are so lovely that I think it is a shame to eat them.

That's Snot Funny!

Prickly pear pads are well known for exuding slime, much like okra.  This can be a big turn-off for some people.  There are a number of different ways to deal with the slime factor.  Many people swear by grilling or roasting the pads.  Others boil them with tomatillo husks.  My friend Rosa Sr. instructed me that they key to cooking nopalitos without slime is to not stir.  Her advice was to heat a pan over medium, saute your garlic, onion, etc in oil, then add in sliced nopalitos, stir once, and leave them be until they turn a deep olive color.  If any of you have another method of dealing with the slime, please share it in the comments.

Are you new to Wild Things?  Here's the scoop.

In many countries, traditional foods are prepared for their medicinal effects. In most of these places, the foods prepared were wild foods that were cheap and easy to obtain. By default, they were local and seasonal. One of the problems with a lot of modern fad diets is that in order to actually follow the diet, one needs to fork out a whole lot of money. Most of us just can't afford to do that, especially not in this economy! Not only that, but it seems might suspicious that, in many cases, these products that are touted as panaceas have to come from half way around the globe -- noni from Tahiti, acai from Brazil, gogii from China. What are the odds that God (or the higher being of your choice) put all of the good stuff in Tahiti, and left us to fend for ourselves until the advent of globalization? Whether food or medicine, the majority of what we need can be found locally. It might not be trendy, but it will most probably be just as effective, if not more so. Wherever you are, you have with your reach an untapped resource - wild foods!

Welcome to the Wild Things Round Up*
As your host, I'd like to demonstrate that eating wild foods doesn't need to be a terrifying endeavor, and that our health and our diet needn't be dictated by financial status or geographic location.

A Few Notes About the Round Up
1. Wherever you are, you have access to Wild Things, even if this means clandestine trips to your neighbor's yard in the middle of the night**.

2. Foraging isn't only for hippies and luddites, though hippies and luddites are both very much welcome (Hi, Hippie!  Hi, Luddite!). It's easy to assume that everyone who eats this way lives out in the wild, and shuns the material world and/or technology. But it just isn't true! This isn't a club exclusive to country mice. I live smack in the middle of suburbia. I'm a very well adjusted modern woman who loves my life, and happen to love nature as well.

3.  This is not about trying to be a cave dweller. Though there are plenty of people in the world who successfully and gracefully live a life that is more similar to how people lived hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. I'm not one of those people, and I'll assume that for the most part, you are not either.  It's easy to romanticize, but that is a difficult, hard working life. It's also not necessary to remove yourself from the modern world in order to be connected to nature. When it comes down to it, isn't that what we all want a bit more of -- connection, to nature, to community, to other people, to a higher power? Nature is everywhere. Life is everywhere. It's not outside of your touch. It's not only available to people who sacrifice modern convenience. You do not need to give up your makeup or latte.

A Few Foraging Rules

1. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING THAT YOU CANNOT 100% IDENTIFY!!! I can't stress the importance of this point. People can die from this sort of stupidity. Let's not win any Darwin Awards here.

2.  Know the foraging laws in your area. Call the city, call the forest service, call the landowner.   Respect private property. Ask permission. Most people will gladly let you pull up some weeds for them. Most of them are delighted to get rid of some of the fruit that rots all over the pavement. Just ask.

3.  Don't take more than you need. Never take rare plants. Learn what's in your area -- only take things what are abundant. This is important! Always think of the future, not just in terms of what you want, but in terms of the ecology of the system from which you are harvesting. These ecosystems have been around for millenia, since long before people got there. Don't be the one to change that in one generation.

Tools You Will Need

1. Scissors and/or pocket knife

2. A local guidebook (don't be tempted to grab a national guide), with pictures

3. Bags for collecting food

How to Play

At the beginning of each month, I will introduce a new Wild Thing. I will give pictures, descriptions, best locations, and taste, and also list any possible toxicity issues. The plants that I feature will be those with few, if any, toxic lookalikes. And if there are any, I'll give you ample warning. None of the plants I select will have any potential lethal lookalikes.

Over the course of the month, both you and I will go and find the featured plant, play with it in the kitchen, and come up with creative ways to use it. But don't feel like you need to invent a recipe in order to participate. Feel free to tell about your experience using a known recipe. But please do credit the originator of the recipe.

If you have a blog, post your recipe on your blog, and then share it with Wild Things. Also, mine your archives, and link old recipes.

If you don't have a blog, you are still welcome to participate. Simply introduce your recipe and experience with a few sentences, and then share your recipe. A picture is always nice, too, although not necessary to play along.

Before the end of the month (sooner is better, because your host has a day job!), submit your recipe to wildthings.roundup@gmail.com . Please send your recipe directly to that email address. If you send it to my personal email, or post it on Facebook, I'm likely to forget it.

At the end of the month, I will provide a round up list of everyone's adventures. Sound like fun?  I think so.

*No association with Monsanto.

** Just kidding.  I don't advocate stealing. Really, there's no need -- a knock on the door and a "Hey, I noticed that you have an apple tree full of rotting apples. I was wondering, could I take a few of them, or pay you for some of them, or mow your lawn for some of them?" will suffice. Most people are horrified at the thought of taking money for apples, and will drop big bags of them off on your front step for months to come.

Alright friends, are you ready to cook up some delicious dishes with prickly pears?  Ready, steady, go!  And, please please please, will someone make a prickly pear margarita this month?

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