In preparation for the start of our experiment we picked prickly pear fruit (from native Opuntia engelmannii) with friends on Sunday morning. We simply took a bucket and tongs out to the foothills of the Catalina Mountains and plucked ripe fruit from the cactus pads.

Prickly pear fruit

Closeup of prickly pear fruit

At home, we processed the fruit by slicing each one in half and scooping out the insides with a spoon. We then blended all of the pulp briefly and strained it to separate the seeds from the edible portion of the fruit. The end result was about half a gallon of beautiful, thick, crimson-red juice (we had picked about 2 gallons of whole fruit) that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before except other cactus fruit juice. We used some of this juice in our first local meal (see below) and stashed the rest in our fridge for future treats.

Prickly pear fruit cut in half

Bowl of processed prickly pear fruit

We also went to the local farmer’s market to stock up on fresh veggies, and to buy some meat and honey for the coming weeks or months of local eating. We found tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, eggplant, shallots, plums, chiles, zucchini, and yellow squash from Willcox, ground beef from Cochise and agave honey from Freddy Terry, the singing apiculturist from Oracle.

We had invited 6 friends over to a potluck dinner on Monday evening to send us off on our adventure. We decided to bake a chicken and make beans, and everyone else was to bring a side-dish. One of our friends generously gave us the local, free-range, natural (no antibiotics or hormones added) chicken she had bought from our CSA (community supported agriculture).

We prepared the chicken by placing it in a baking dish, pouring about 3/4 cup of prickly pear juice over it, lightly salting it, and then spooning about 3 or 4 tablespoons of honey into the baking dish. As the chicken cooked the honey melted and we basted the chicken with honey-cactus-chicken juice frequently. We also cut up some sweet potatoes from last week’s CSA share and put them in the baking dish around the chicken. The oven was set for 350 degrees, and the chicken cooked for just under 2 hours. The chicken turned out to be absolutely delicious- I’d cook it again this way in a heartbeat! The honey acted as a glaze, so the chicken not only tasted good, it looked pretty too.

Chicken glazed in prickly pear juice and honey

We decided to cook tepary beans as another main course. The beans are very slow-cooking, so they had to be soaked overnight. Even so, they took over 3 hours to fully cook! We cooked the beans with onion, garlic, purslane (picked from our organic community garden), cholla buds (the flower buds of another local cactus species- we had harvested, processed and dried these a few months ago), roasted green chiles and a pinch of salt. The beans were very tasty, but more salt would have made them tastier.

As a side-dish, we prepared wheat groats, also from our CSA. These are simply the whole, unprocessed seeds of wheat. We cooked them as if they were rice- 2 cups of water to one cup of grains. They were chewy and tasty, and were great for soaking up beans and/or prickly-pear honey sauce from the chicken.

One of our friends brought a veggie dish. She had chopped and baked sweet potatoes, green beans, bok choy, bell peppers, red onion and a pinch of salt. It was a colorful, delicious addition to the meal.

Our first local dinner

Other friends (the ones we picked prickly pear fruit with) contributed a prickly pear “refresca”, or refreshing beverage. They simply mixed prickly pear juice with spearmint leaves, grapefruit juice (from a grapefruit they picked in downtown Tucson), honey (from bees that they raise) and water. It was surprisingly subtle tasting, and very refreshing.

Prickly pear refresca

Our dessert was fruit salad- local apples, nectarines, and watermelon mixed with a bit of honey (also from the singing apiculturist)- made by our other friends.

As an appetizer we had pecans (from the CSA) still in the shell, and watermelon.

Watermelon and pecans

Dinner was served at 6pm with red wine from Elgin and lots of good conversation. We were off to a grand start on our local journey.

Assembled to eat