Prickly Pear Summer Recipe from Sonoma County
Apricots. Blackberries. Blueberries. Melons, cherries, and watermelon. Oh my, it must be summer fruit season in Sonoma County. As an agricultural powerhouse, Wine Country is known for many more fruits beyond grapes, and in the warm months, the fields and orchards brim in mouthwatering bounty.
One of the most delicious – and surprising – stars of summer is prickly pear cactus. The versatile, vigorous plant was used as fencing in the days before barbed wire all across the county (you can still see it used as such at Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, 3325 Adobe Road, Petaluma).
Both the pads and the fruit are edible. According to the University of California’s Sonoma County Master Gardeners group, the fruit ripens from between early spring through the fall, and should be firm but not hard, and yield to gentle pressure.
It’s easy to get your hands on gorgeous fruit here. Simply visit one of our many farmers’ markets. You can pick it up fresh (when in season) at Green String Farm in Petaluma, a gem that has been farming sustainably for 30 years and providing produce to Alice Waters‘ restaurant Chez Pannise. Their roadside farmstand is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and for an updated list of what’s in stock, check the farm’s website at .
Or, stop in at our many locally owned markets, such as Andy’s Produce Market (1691 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol) in Sebastopol, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The paddles, or nopales, of the prickly pear (or nopal) cactus are sold in Mexican markets, as well, with the spines (sharp thorns) already removed. Lola's Market has two stores in Santa Rosa selling them.
Or, you can grow your own. Wine Country's diverse climate makes it an ideal place to cultivate many types of fruit. Fertile soil makes it easy, and homeware shops all across the county sell staples like raised bed boxes, half wine barrels to be used as planters, organic fertilizers, and heritage seeds and starts.
Just as easy though, if you get a plant from a garden store (or have a friendly neighbor with some), you can simply snap off a pad and stick it in rich, cactus-caliber dirt (also easily found at a garden store). Keep the pad moist, and within weeks, it will sprout with dozens more pads, at which point you can transplant it to your yard. It grows like a gorgeous weed, through heat, cold, drought and flood.
Plus, in spring and early summer, the enormous white or pink flowers are breathtaking, attracting hummingbirds and bees.
Next, how to enjoy? Bear Republic in Healdsburg makes a seasonal prickly pear beer, as an American Stout with prickly pears aged in French oak wine barrels. Healdsburg Shed makes a bright shrub with vinegar syrups, prickly pear and water. Many Mexican restaurants across Sonoma County love the sweet pear syrup for margaritas.
For the nopales, think asparagus flavor, or firm, meaty green bean, with a bit of crunch. And here, courtesy of Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa, is a an easy way to savor them:
Recipe: Nopales Sauté
Prickly pear paddles are delicious and not that hard to prepare. Don’t be put off by the spines. Just be careful. These are full of vitamins and minerals and also help regulate blood sugar. You can eat them raw if you like but we usually cook them up in one way or another. Here’s how I clean them. I put them flat on a piece of newspaper on my cutting board. I cut around the perimeter to take all those spines/ stickers off. Then, using a paring knife, I slice off each spiny sticker, very carefully. You may want to use gloves. Some people use a potato peeler. You don’t need to peel the whole thing, just take off the spines and the top nodules as well.
Rinse and cube the cleaned paddles. Meanwhile, sauté some spring red (or other) onion and garlic and add the chopped cactus. Add some frozen, canned or fresh in-season tomatoes. Cook for about 15 minutes until the cactus juice has been absorbed. It will help thicken the sauce. Add spices such as chile powders and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice with just a speck of grated cheese; the sauté is also delicious mixed with scrambled eggs, or over fish and chicken.