August is prickly pear harvest season in Arizona, where some species of the cactus are native to the Sonoran Desert. The pinkish plant proves picturesque and tasty, starring in salads, sweets and drinks on menus across the state.
“There are over 200 species of prickly pear plants that grow all over the world,” says Cheri Romanoski, who makes dozens of prickly pear products at Cheri’s Desert Harvest in Tucson, Ariz. “The indigenous species that we pick from is the Opuntia Engelmanni variety due to the prolific abundance of fruit it bears, vibrant magenta color, high nutritional values and tart/sweet flavor.”
The popular plant is hand harvested and used in many ways once the thorns are removed. The pinkish fruit and green branches are both edible and can be referred to as tuna and nopalito on menus.
“Chefs, brew masters from micro-breweries, distillers, food manufacturers and just connoisseurs of delicious organic fruits enjoy this amazing, natural gift from the Sonoran Desert,” says Romanoski, who even makes clothing, cosmetics and zoo biscuits from the cacti.
Margaritas may be Arizonans’ favorite prickly pear preparation, judging by widespread menu appearances, but the state’s eateries serve up a Sonoran taste of place with spins on the star ingredient from salad dressing to ice cream.
“Prickly pear cactus fruit have lightly citric, sweet and delicate flavor profiles,” says Tamara Stanger, chef at Helio Basin Brewing Company, where the ingredient is used in chimichurri, pavlova dessert, cannoli, pie and a shandy made with tequila and agave wheat beer. “In the kitchen, I like to use prickly pear to turn any traditional recipe into something unique. It’s a big part…