From Sonoran food

Miel de Tuna – Prickly Pear Syrup

There are so many methods to working with tuna, prickly pear, the fruit of the nopal cactus. This is just one of them, and the one which works best for me, as I generally do my kitchen work without an extra set of hands.

There’s a few important things to remember when working with tuna. These bright red fruit are covered in tiny nearly invisible spines. Do not grab barehanded. When harvesting the fruit, grab with kitchen tongs and gently twist to remove from the plant. And I repeat, do not grab barehanded. If the inevitable tiny spine does make its way into the skin, gently rub against a dry paintbrush, end of a ponytail, or any such hairy mass to remove. It’s weird, but it works.

Necessary tuna picking equipment: 5 gallon bucket, kitchen tongs and blinding Arizona sun.

Nopal, prickly pear, have a wide ranging habitat and I’ve seen them tolerating even the harsh wintery conditions of southeast Michigan. Both ‘thornless’ (do not believe this lie) and thorned varieties produce fruit. The plant requires little to thrive, except for dry and sunny conditions and a calcium based fertilizer during the growing season. Fruit should be picked before heavy summer rains, as the excess water will give the fruit a fermented taste.

Unfortunately, the fruits available at markets are not worth purchasing as it does not ripen well once picked.

A note on the yield, time and taste of this recipe: It is not much yield and it is much time required, though little active effort. Out of approximately 3 gallons of collected fruit, the resulting syrup was not much more than 1 1/4 cup. The best way I can describe the flavor of this syrup is as being close to that of Jägermeister. Sweet, pleasantly medicinal and with a slight mineral finish. My most simple way of using this syrup is in coffee, but wouldn’t be out of place drizzled over ice cream, or incorporated into fancy Swiss buttercream.  


Miel de Tuna - Prickly Pear Syrup

  • Tuna, prickly pear fruit
  • Water as needed

Place tuna in a large bucket and cover with cold water and soak for two or three hours, changing out the water if desired. Soaking allows the spines to mostly drop off the fruit, but not completely. Carefully pick through the fruit and remove any damaged ones.

Working in a large heavy bottomed stainless steel pot, bring fruit and 2 inches of water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook, loosely covered until the fruit have softened completely.

Gently mash the fruit with a potato masher until completely broken up. Continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool until comfortable straining the liquid into a clean pot through 2 layers of fine mesh strainers.

Cook the liquid at a gentle simmer until thickened to a syrup consistency. Heat will need to be reduced as the amount of liquid goes down. Be very conscious of this as syrup consistency nears as syrup can begin to burn very quickly. Check syrup thickness by dipping a clean metal spoon into the syrup and swiping a clean finger across the back of the spoon. When at the correct level of reduction, syrup will stick to the metal and not drip.

Strain syrup one more time into sanitized heatproof glass jars. Keep refrigerated up to 6 months.

Note: The pulpy mass of the fruit may be reserved, dried, and seeds picked out, and ground into a meal to add to baked goods, soups, etc. 

Tepary Bean Stew

This is the second of the three recipes I presented at Tucson Meet Yourself, and one of my favorite dishes I’ve made for a few presentations and demonstrations, yes a dish I somehow magically forget to photograph. Oh well.

This soup couldn’t be more simple and more suited to deal with the different dietary restrictions so many people carry. No dairy. No meat. No soy. Gluten is easily eliminated. Completely satisfying in its scent and far more filling than first appears.

Tepary beans may be purchased from Ramona Farms, at and various locations throughout Arizona as listed through their website. They may also be purchased at San Xavier Co-op, as well as bichicoris and dry cholla buds. 

Bichicoris, known to the Tohono O’odham people as ha:l, is a squash, which is peeled, cut into a long winding rope, and hung to dry in the desert sun. Seeds for this particular squash can be purchased from Native Seed Search.

Squash typically used for bichicoris for sale at a Phoenix area Mexican grocery store.


Tepary Bean Stew

  • Bichicoris, dry hard squash, to taste 
  • 1 pound brown tepary beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp dry Mexican oregano
  • ⅓ cup wheat berries
  • ½ cup dry cholla buds
  • 1 cup white onion, diced
  • 1 head garlic, minced
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Quelites, fresh wild greens such as verdolagas, amaranth, etc, to taste
  • 4 chileverde, fire roasted, seeded, peeled, cut into strips

Pick through and clean tepary beans. Soak for 8 to 10 hours in cold water. Drain the beans, and remove any beans which may not have reconstituted. 

Bring 3 quarts water to boil. Once boiling, add the bichicoris (dry squash) to the pot and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to soften. Remove and set aside to cool. Bring water back to a boil and stir well. Begin cooking beans at a simmer, and skim any scum on the surface. Once clear, add bay leaves, and grind oregano between palms while adding to the pot. Loosely cover pot and simmer for half an hour. 

While beans cook, cut bichicoris into 1 inch long pieces. After initial half hour of simmering, add remaining ingredients, except quelites and chileverde. Bring back to a simmer, and loosely cover again. Continue to cook until turn tender, approximately 3 hours. Season to taste with salt and continue to cook until beans release their earthy fragrance. The beans should be soft, with the skin just splitting. Add in quelites and chileverdes. Adjust seasoning as needed.  

If during cooking the beans begin to run dry, add enough hot water to cover by at least 1”. Avoid adding cold water as this will lengthen the cooking process.

Polvorones de Pechita y Nuez – Mesquite and Pecan Shortbread

I was fortunate enough to be invited to present at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself a Folk Life festival, the 46th annual festival representing many of the diverse cultures residing in this Sonoran desert city.

This was both hugely flattering and terrifying. This is an event attended by thousands, and though my own audience would be much smaller, I couldn’t just do something like show up, make flour tortillas and pretend to be a Sonoran food expert, as I was to be.

I had to come up with something good, something which was true to the Sonoran desert. Something which wasn’t flour tortillas, because really, I’m ok at making tortillas, but I am not great.

The following is the first of the three recipes I presented at Tucson Meet Yourself, using an ingredient found on every suburban corner of Tucson, Phoenix and every other Sonoran desert city: mesquite pods.


Considered a nuisance by those who step on the sticky, sharply pointed and plentiful pods, they are raked up and dismissed as nothing more than garbage. Too bad for those people dismissing a protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc loaded little pod into the garbage. Oh and let’s not forget the low glycemic index safe for diabetics to eat source of sugar.

The taste of mesquite is of a dark caramel sweetness, and just a bit nutty with a tannic finish. The flavor develops slowly when eaten.

Mesquite pods should be gathered before summer rains and allowed to dry completely before milling into flour. Wash and lay the pods to dry on a sheet or towel in full sun until able to crack into pieces. It is possible to mill small batches of finely ground flour with a blender at home, simmering the remaining chaff into a sweet syrup afterwards. Mesquite flour should be sifted twice through a fine mesh before measuring.

If you would like to know more about mesquite, consult, including more in depth nutritional information as well as where to source mesquite flour.

While I am not dedicating a lengthy paragraph to it, the flavor of this shortbread cookie is due largely to the pecan in it, a native nut to the American continent and grown extensively throughout the Sonoran desert.

Polvorones de Pechita y Nuez - Mesquite and Pecan Shortbread

  • 170 g (6 oz) butter, preferably salted, room temperature
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) piloncillo, finely grated
  • 150 g (5.3 oz) pecans, chopped finely
  • 150 g (5.3 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 75 g (2.65 oz) mesquite flour, sifted before measuring
  • 5 g sea salt

Working in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and grated piloncillo until fluffy. Slowly incorporate dry ingredients and mix until evenly incorporated. Form into a smooth disk, and working on a lightly floured surface roll out to ¼” thick. Using a clean ruler and a rotary cutter, cut into 1 1/2″ squares.

Lift using an offset spatula and place on a parchment or silicone lined baking tray. Bake at  325°F for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies begin to feel dry to the touch. Cool completely.


Piloncillo: Piloncillo is a form of raw lump sugar, most commonly seen in cone form. It is easily found in Mexican grocery stores. Look for ones with a rich dark tone and strong caramel fragrance. If not available, a piloncillo cone can be substituted with 1 cup packed brown sugar and 1 tbsp unsulphured molasses. If small pieces of piloncillo are needed for additional sweetness, it may be grated or broken up with a hammer.