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Prickly Pear snapshot

Jicama and Prickly Pear: Flavors of the Southwest

by John Raven, Ph.B.

We have a couple of food items from the southwest that I bet most of you have not tried. They are pretty simple fare dating back to the days when a day at the office meant hunting and gathering.

Jicama
The jicama (HICK-uh-muh) is sometime known as the Mexican potato or the Mexican turnip. It is a tuber of the morning glory family. That means it grows under the ground. The jicama is not a real attractive root before it's prepared for the table. It averages the size of a baseball and has a tough brownish skin on it. Above the ground the jicama is a vine that will grow a long way. I had one planted like you do a sweet potato in a bowl of water and the vine grew up the blinds and over the top of the door before I had to remove it. Jicama vines and leaves are not for salad; they are poisonous.

Once you remove the skin from the jicama you have a lovely white orb that looks much like apple. It has a sweet taste and is just as crunchy as water chestnuts. It can be consumed raw or cooked, and adds a great crunch to your salads. Small, flat rounds of jicama are perfect for dipping. They compliment a fruit-type dip as well as the usual more protein dips found on the buffet. I once saw a nice lady take the time and effort to cut jicama slices into attractive shapes with a small cookie cutter. They really looked nice.

The jicama is a weight watcher's delight. A cup of jicama contains only 45 calories, whereas a cup of carrot has 52 calories. The jicama is high in vitamin C, fiber and potassium, all good for you.

I'm not including any specific recipe, as the jicama is so versatile. Most recipes I have checked use the jicama raw. It does not lose its crunch when cooked. You can shred it like cabbage for slaw, add it to fruit salad for a crunch, or eat it plain for a snack. Jicama goes well with citrus and chile flavors, and they keep well. Kept dry in a temperature from 40 to 50 degrees, they'll keep for a month or longer.

Get you a nice jicama and see what you can come up with.

The Opuntia or Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years. It is found primarily in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.

The plants are made up of "pads", which are not exactly leaves and not exactly stems. The plant starts out as one pad, which usually grows to a size of about six inches in diameter. The pads are slightly oblong. A new pad will start to grow on the edge of the first pad and the process will continue. The resulting plant can get as big as a small car. In the spring of the year, the prickly pear will produce lovely yellow flowers. It seems an oddity that such a tough, mean plant can produce such a pretty bloom.

The bloom will mature into a "tuna" or Mexican fig. The tuna will be slightly larger than a golf ball and slightly football shaped. As the tuna matures it will turn a deep purple.

Jicama snapshot
Jicama

The young pads are valued as a food product wherever prickly pears grow in abundance, but the pads must be harvested before they grow their full compliment of needle sharp spines. Even then the nodules where the spines will appear must be removed. Then the pads can be rendered into a large variety of foods. In southwestern cookery, the pads are known as nopales.

If you have a prickly pear growing nearby, I advise you not to mess with it unless you are a seasoned mountain man. The large spines are needle sharp and produce an irritating puncture at the slightest touch. The real mean part of the prickly pear is the glochids – the tiny hair-like spines that will come loose from the pad after they come into contact with human flesh. They are barbed and will work their way deeper into the skin. They are quite uncomfortable. They will finally fester and disappear, but that can take several weeks. The time-honored cowboy method of dealing with the encounters with glochids was to take a razor and shave off the exposed parts. This would cut way down on the discomfort caused by clothing rubbing on the embedded stickers. Huge strides have been made recently in the treatment of glochid infestation. You put duct tape over them and then pull it off. This will remove all but the most stubborn of the thorns. [Author's note: I had the unfortunate experience of backing into a prickly pear. You will really find out who your friends are when this happens.]

The tunas are sort of like a plum but not quite. They are primarily used for making candies and jellies. The process of using them is to render the juice from them and then use the juice for flavorings.

There is one more popular use for the prickly pear, which is not exactly prickly pear. The cochineal is a small sap-sucking insect that likes prickly pear juice. These little critters can be rendered into a red dye that is quite popular. I don't think we need to go into dye making right now.

If you want to experiment with the fruits of the prickly pear, get some that are ready for home use. You can get them with the spines already removed. This is the only way to go. Nopales come fresh, dried or in the can. As far as I know, the tunas come only fresh. You always want to wash the fresh fruits in cold water before you use them.

There are hundreds of recipes for prickly pear products on the Internet. Google through them and find one or two that sound good to you and try them.

The most popular use of nopales in this part of the world is the dish where nopales and eggs are cooked together. Give them a try.

Tune in again next month, same time, same station. If you have something you would like me to talk about, and I think it would be of interest to the rest of the gang, give me an email. You can get the address off the “Ask Dr. John “ page.

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