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Cooking up stories: Cactus salad and milkshakes
When I drive down Elks Lane in the summertime, my mouth waters at the sight of the prickly pear apples I see along the way.
Pear apples, or tunas as they're called in Spanish, are very sweet, tender juicy fruits whose flavor is unique but similar to watermelon or berries.
As a young girl living just outside of Thermal, Calif., I used to sit in the shade of palm trees with my brother Jimmy, our bare feet cooling in the damp, recently irrigated soil, and pear apple juice dripping down our hands and faces as we savored the sweet nectar of the desert.
We used our pocket knives to stab the fruit and pry it off the prickly pear pads, and to scrape off the larger thorns, but we invariably got some of the tinier hair-like thorns in our fingers.
The mild pain and itching those thorns caused was a small price to pay for the delectable desert fruit we got to eat only once a year during the summer when they ripened on the tips of the prickly pear pads.
In summertime, Jimmy and I also used to go with our father on his horse shoeing rounds, and at the end of those long, hot days, he'd treat us to cactus milkshakes at Valerie Jean's Date and Curio Shop down the road from our house.
The sight of the pear apples on Elk's Lane always reminds me of those sweet pink milkshakes and the times I spent with Jimmy and my dad.
They also remind me of a Mexican nursery rhyme about a horse eating pear apples that my former mother-in-law used to tell my son Frankie when he was a toddler: “Hay viene la grulla a comer las tunas (here comes the grulla-colored mare to eat pear apples); si no hay atunes, va a comer Frankie, Frankie, Frankie! (if there are no pear apples, she'll eat Frankie).”
As she said his name at the end of the rhyme, she would open and close her hand like a horse's mouth on my son's belly to make him laugh.
I've never seen a horse eat pear apples, but in South Texas, where my parents were raised, ranchers “burn pear” (burn thorns off of prickly pear cactus with propane torches) so cattle can eat the cactus pads and fruits for the water and nutrition the plants provide during droughts.
Many people also eat prickly pear pads. My mother recalls going out into the desert around her hometown, Laredo, Texas, with her siblings, cousins and abuelita (Spanish for “little grandmother”) to harvest the cactus pads.
The kids also had to help their abuelita clean, de-thorn, cut and cook the cactus (called nopalitos in Spanish). Then she would serve the nopalitos as part of a larger meal to her grandchildren, who would dine with her at her table that seated 12, to teach them that a good meal was the result of good work.
My mother, however, did not like harvesting, cooking or eating nopalitos, so she never did that with me and my siblings. I began eating them as an adult, after I moved to Yuma and my former in-laws prepared them in red chili, or scrambled them with eggs.
They're tender yet crunchy and taste sort of like a tangy green bean. Some people roast them over an outdoor grill, to serve as a vegetable with grilled meats. And some people use them as an ingredient in salads. They must be gently boiled before being used in salads or other recipes, and during the cooking process, they become slimy like okra.
However, draining them in a colander, rinsing them well and patting them dry helps remove any sliminess.
Whole or diced, de-thorned prickly pear pads are generally available in the produce section of local grocery stores. And at certain times of year, pear apples are also available. However, the latter are not usually as ripe or sweet as the those you can pick off the cactus plants yourself during late summer.
Cactus milkshakes are also available at some local date and curio shops, but I believe they are flavored with prickly pear apple syrup rather than juice.