Arizona is bracing for the annual migration of more than 550,000 Canadian snowbirds to their Southwestern state.
With the Grand Canyon in the north and Yuma in the south, where 90% of North America’s greens grow between November and March, there’s plenty to see. And if you’ve never stood next to a towering Saguaro cactus with its arms in the air, straight out of an old Western, I highly recommend it.
Locals and visitors alike love bubblegum-pink margaritas made from the fruit of the nopal, or prickly pear cactus, often found in Arizona backyards and used as an imposing hedge 4 to 6 feet high. The cacti’s flat green pads resemble a beaver tail covered with scary spikes. In winter, pretty flowers give way to a row of fruits that grow along the edge of the pads like fat green or red toes.
The pear’s juicy texture, hard edible seeds and faintly sweet watermelon flavour are beloved by Arizona chefs, who come out in droves to (carefully) harvest the wild fruit before the birds get it. Chefs slice the peeled pears into salsa or over cheesecake, and use the juice for cocktails and sorbets. Cooked down, the juice becomes a thick syrup great for pancakes or a glaze for beef brisket.
These cacti grow in the Southwest, Mexico and the Mediterranean. D’Arrigo Bros. harvests pears from California’s Salinas Valley from the end of August to April, and the edible green pads, or nopales, from April to December.
In the past few years, the D’Arrigo family has introduced new orange, red, purple and green varieties under the Andy Boy label that are firmer, sweeter and juicier than the traditional cactus pear they grew up with in Sicily.
Before joining the family firm, Gabriela D’Arrigo was a bartender in Arizona.
“My favourite cocktail was a cactus pear margarita,” says D’Arrigo. “It is the most refreshing and delicious cocktail ever.”
Puréeing the flesh of the darker-skinned pears gives a thick, bloody-looking juice that’s ideal for Halloween cocktails. But there are lots of other uses for these juicy pears, beloved by Latin Americans and Southern Italians.
- Prickly pears contain only 45 calories per fruit, and are good sources of Vitamin C and potassium. The seeds are rich in fibre.
- Studies have shown they can help people with Type 2 diabetes regulate their sugar levels.
- The fruit of the prickly pear cactus plant goes by different names, including cactus pear, tuna and Indian fig (fico d’india in Italian).
- Choose pears that are tender, not squishy, with a full deep colour and no moldy spots.
- If very firm, let soften a few days at room temperature. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
- Beware, though California prickly pears have been de-prickled before shipping, there may still be one or two invisible hairs left to prick your fingers.
- Slice off both ends of fruit and discard.
- Cut a slit down the length of the pear about ¼-inch (.5 cm) deep and peel back the thick skin in one piece.
- If you don’t fancy the seeds, purée the peeled flesh in a food processor then place in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl. Press with the back of a spoon to extract all the juice. Discard seeds and serve chilled.
- 4 to 5 prickly pears = 1 cup (250 mL) juice
Salad: Cut prickly pears into circles or cubes for fruit salad – try oranges, kiwi and bananas – or use the purée in a vinaigrette.
Drink: Native American Indians used prickly pear juice to make fermented wine and brandy. Today’s bartenders use it in martinis, mimosas, margaritas and daiquiris.
Smoothie: Purée two peeled cactus pears and blend with a banana, 4 ice cubes, 2 tbsp (30 mL) honey and 1 cup (250 mL) milk.
Refresher: Mix equal parts prickly pear juice and homemade lemonade.
Jelly: Blend juice with sweet wine, sugar and pectin to make a clear jelly for grilled lamb chops, roast duck, venison or pork. Or use it to glaze fruit tarts.
Bloody Cactus Margarita
Refreshingly delicious and spooky enough for Halloween. Find turbinado sugar and kosher salt at the bulk food store.
2.5 oz pink cactus pear purée, chilled
1 oz tequila
½ oz orange liqueur (eg. Triple Sec)
1 oz fresh lime juice
½ tsp granulated sugar
1 lime wedge
Equal parts turbinado sugar and kosher salt
1 prickly pear circle
To prepare glass, cut a slit in a lime wedge and wipe rim of a 6 to 8-oz martini glass to moisten. Dip rim into sugar/salt mixture.
Place 5 to 6 ice cubes in shaker. Add prickly pear purée, tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice and sugar. Shake vigorously and strain into prepared glass. Garnish with a prickly pear circle.
Makes 1 serving.