The Cactus Moon

I love the Western deserts. And, I love cacti varieties. I’ve often driven out to the desert in Southeastern California to hike through the rocky mountains with endless oceans of pink barrel cactus, teddy bear cholla, pencil cholla, and Joshua trees. This fall, I had the opportunity to drive, hike, and camp through the California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texan deserts (roughly the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts). Hiking through hills outside Tucson full of saguaros, palo verdes, chollas, barrel cactus, and then returning to a town that is amazingly landscaped in literally hundreds of varieties of cactus. In the early spring, the cactus are in full bloom, and were traditionally for the Pima one of the only available food sources in season, hence, the cactus moon. I was really excited to find dried cholla blossoms at Native Seeds SEARCH project, a major obsession of mine, in Tucson Arizona, and impulse bought them along with some saguaro cactus flower tea. Cholla cactus, or Cylindropuntia species, are natives of the Sonoran desert of the Southwestern United states and Northwestern Mexico in the Cactaceae family. They’re the most drought and heat tolerant out of many types of cactus species and can flower in orange, red, yellow, pink, and green, sometimes with multiple colors per plant. A well known variety is the teddy bear cholla, with sharp barbed spines that lodge, and then lodge deeper (personal experience with this one), into anything that touches it.

Cholla buds

Cholla buds

I’ve eaten nopales, or prickly pear cactus pads, and tunas, the fruits of the prickly pear, many times (my favorite way to prepare them is either grilled or diced up in a salsa, and the fruit either raw or in a sorbet), but never really heard about Cholla cactus buds. The Tohono O’odham pick cholla buds, or ciolim, in their lunar calendar month of Su’am Maṣad – “Yellow Month” – which falls around April, and they are either eaten fresh or dried. The harvesting is pretty intensive, as seen here on Sonoran Farmer. They can be added to stews, soups, salads, salsas, pupusas, and seem pretty versatile. Chocolocateria has a bunch of pretty great looking recipes, as does this Tohono O’odham Community Action Website. Traditionally, the buds are then dried so that they can be stored all year. Buds are then soaked and rehydrated before cooking. They are also great for balancing blood sugar, and two tablespoons of the buds contain more calcium than a glass of milk. Some species of cholla, such as the Cylindropuntia, are also useful in the treatment of gastrointestinal ailments and joint aches and pains, however, couldn’t find much information on the subject. I rehydrated and then boiled a few and tried them. They taste a bit like lemony alfalfa to me, maybe a stretch would be asparagus or green beans. I decided to toss them in olive oil, salt, and a little bit of dried chili, and roast them in the oven. I then added them to eggs with some goat cheese and spicy sprouts on a corn tortilla. Pretty good! I think they would be great in cheese and poblano pupusas as well, and I like the imagery tie in with round pupusas for the cactus moon.

Dried cholla buds.

Dried cholla buds.

Although pupusas are not from the Southwest, corn masa is a traditional ingredient in southwestern cooking to make tortillas and tamales. I thought I would add a few herbal ingredients to this cactus moon pupusa for energy and radiance. It’s a little past early spring here in the South East, and definitely just past it in the South West, but for those of you further north, here’s a recipe to help wrap up that polar vortex.

Cactus Moon Pupusas
A strengthening recipe to leave the winter behind

You need:
-3 cups Corn Masa
-1 1/2 cups of warm water
-Sea Salt to taste
-1/2 cup dried cholla buds
-Cheese of choice: I think a cheddar or fresh goat cheese would be best.
-1 sliced poblano pepper
-Fresh nettles, wild onions, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and any other fresh herbs are springing up in your area.
-Garnish: Avocado, red cabbage, pumpkin seeds, jicama, cilantro, turmeric, cayenne, black pepper, raw honey, and limes

1. Mix the corn masa, water, and salt in a bowl to form the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 15 minutes.
2. Prepare filling – roast and chop poblano pepper, sauté nettles, etc.
3. Divide dough into 6 pieces and form into ball with a slight indentation in the center.
4. Place filling – a small amount of cholla, peppers, herbs, cheese, in the center, and wrap dough around it, and then carefully flatten it into a patty.
5. Chop red cabbage, cilantro, jicama, and avocados into a salsa/slaw. Add black pepper, turmeric, and a small amount of lime juice mixed with raw honey to taste.
6. In a cast iron skillet, add a small amount of oil and fry pupusas until golden brown on each side, garnish with the slaw, top with pumpkin seeds, and serve.

The nettles in this recipe serve as a great spring tonic, reviving the system and fortifying it with vitamins and minerals. They’re good for the blood, as is the the rosemary. The black pepper and turmeric are an aryuvedic combination good for inflammations brought on by the winter months and help tone the circulatory system, as does the cayenne. The oregano has anti-microbial qualities to it, helping to finally kick that cold, and the limes give an extra vitamin c boost. The local fresh herbs you tossed in will give you a bunch of nutrients and help get your immune system in gear for spring. The raw honey adds a little strength and healing to the mix, and on top of all that, the cholla buds welcome in the start of spring – the cactus moon.

Food photo to come!

(s) 6, 10, Harvest the Desert – Esther Moore, and websites linked.