You’ve probably seen those old Westerns or cartoons, where a parched cowboy, staggering under the brilliant desert sun, lops off the top of a cactus and drinks its juice. That, dear friends, is what we here in Arizona call a tall tale. Most cactus is pulpy, bitter and can be downright toxic.
Happily, there are plenty of plants from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, including a few cactus, that you can eat with gusto, especially the prickly pear.
What’s a prickly pear? Also known as Opuntia, or nopales, the cactus’ green, flat pads are vegetable-like and its magenta-colored fruit finds its way into syrup, jam and other recipes. You’ll find prickly pear on the menu at restaurants, served in cocktails, churned into ice cream and made into candies, syrups and other products that you can purchase to take home.
Main Dish Delights
Cactus is on the menu at Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, where noted chef Silvana Salcido Esparza serves up tacos like salmon y nopal (smoked salmon and tender-cooked prickly pear cactus pads) and nopalitos y huevo (cactus and fried egg).
At Tucson’s Tohono Chul, a botanical garden with art galleries and regional gift shops, the Garden Bistro offers numerous prickly pear recipes on its menu – prickly pear lemonade, prickly pear chicken salad and a prickly pear trifle.
Southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation is home to the Desert Rain Café, which features a modern spin on traditional native foods. Try a prickly pear smoothie or another kind of Arizona cactus, the cholla, the buds of which are chopped into a salad and a chunky salsa.
Fries on the Side
Cactus fries – sliced, deep-fried strips of prickly pear pads – are another menu favorite. Find them in Sedona at the historic, rustic Cowboy Club, where they’re served with prickly pear dipping sauce (if you dare, order them along with the beer-battered, fried rattlesnake) or at the hacienda-like setting of The Barking Frog Grille, where the fries are dusted with chili powder.
Prickly pear margaritas are virtually the official Arizona state cocktail. You’ll find this tequila, lime juice and prickly pear syrup concoction on bar menus throughout the state, but at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, they’re garnished with a view of the red rocks.
At Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, savor a prickly pear margarita on the patio, overlooking the craggy outlines of Pinnacle Peak.
Sip one at Tucson’s venerable Arizona Inn, where the world slips away behind the resort’s tall hedges and pink adobe walls.
For more solitude – and something different – head to the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim, where you can scan the canyon with a cactus cosmo in hand. It’s made with prickly pear and cranberry juices, lime and vodka.
For dessert, nothing beats the rosy hue and strawberry-like flavor of prickly pear ice cream.
At the old West-themed Tortilla Flat General Store and Ice Cream Shop near Canyon Lake, dense, creamy prickly pear gelato satisfies travelers who turn off the adjacent Apache Trail.
In Wickenburg, folksy, old-school Chaparral Homemade Ice Cream offers prickly pear ice cream on a cone, as a shake, in a sundae or in an ice cream soda.
People-watching in Sedona is best done on the bench outside Black Cow Cafe, preferably over a scoop of their rich prickly pear ice cream.
Candies & Jellies
Want to take edible cactus home? Cactus Candy Company of Phoenix has been selling its jelly-style candies since 1942 at Arizona gift shops and, now, online.
Sphinx Ranch Gourmet Market in Scottsdale specializes in all things date, but the market also sells bottled prickly pear preserves, syrup, jelly and honey.
Tucson-based Cheri’s Desert Harvest sells prickly pear jelly, candy and syrup through statewide gift and gourmet shops, as well as online.
In Celebration of Cactus
As you tool around Arizona, be on the lookout for classes and events on cactus (and desert plant) cookery.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior hosts, as it does every year at the beginning of the monsoon (rainy) season, prickly pear cactus fruit classes on August 18 and September 2, 2013.
Don’t miss the town of Superior’s annual Prickly Pear Festival – this year on August 24 – which features lectures and classes about prickly pear beer and winemaking, as well as cactus cuisine samples from local restaurants.
Vail’s Colossal Cave Mountain Park is the site of the annual July Ha:san Bak Saguaro Celebration, with festivities focused on the saguaro cactus fruit harvest, while at Tohono Chul, “Connecting Plants and People” is a monthly program about the Sonoran Desert’s edible and useful plants.