It's harvest time for cholla buds, a subtle, versatile native food

2012-04-08T00:00:00Z It's harvest time for cholla buds, a subtle, versatile native foodElena Acoba Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

One of the earliest crops of the season is ready for harvest.

Flower buds from staghorn, buckhorn and pencil cholla have a subtle taste, sort of a cross between broccoli and asparagus. They're rich in calcium.

In Tohono O'odham food tradition, "this was the first fresh plant product they would have after a long winter subsisting on stored or dried foods," says Jo Falls, director of education and visitor services at Tohono Chul Park.

Today, cholla buds offer a lot of culinary versatility. Once prepared, they can be added in stews, chiles, salads and stir-fry. They can be dried, pickled or ground.

One plant doesn't yield a lot, says Falls, who harvests buds from chollas at the park. This is especially because you should save most of the buds for flowering and pollination, she says.

"From a couple of plants you might get a cup or two," she says.

Not all the buds appear at one time, however, which can stretch the harvesting season, says ethnobotanist and native-foods educator Martha Burgess.

"Just a few are getting big at any one time," says Burgess, who conducts cholla-bud-harvesting workshops. "You can harvest the best ones today and harvest different ones (later) from the same plant."

The two women share these gathering and prepping tips:

• Start harvesting when the first cholla flowers begin to bloom.

• Harvest buds in which the petals have sprouted but remain tightly curled in a cone shape. They should be about the size of your thumb.

• Use tongs to firmly grasp a bud. Rock or twist it until it pulls off. Don't tear it away from the stem or cut the stem off.

• Place buds in a paper bag, plastic bucket or other vessel that won't allow spines to poke through.

• Remove spines using a screen box: a wooden square frame to which is attached a screen with quarter-inch holes. Use a whisk broom to roll the buds on the screen, which will break off the spines and allow them to fall through the holes.

• Smaller spines can be pulled off with tweezers. Falls first rinses the buds, blanches them in boiling water and cools them before tackling the remaining spines.

• Buds must be cooked before eating. They can be boiled or roasted to a dull green color, says Burgess. Falls suggests boiling al dente if you will cook them further in a dish. If used cold such as in salads, cook until a fork can pierce them. Discard the cooking water, says Burgess.

• Now you can dry, pickle or freeze the buds for later use or add them into dishes.

Jo Falls likes to toss this spring salad:

• cooked cholla buds

• diced nopalitos (young prickly pear pads)

• corn kernels

• diced bell pepper of various colors

• diced jicama

• sliced green onions

• sunflower kernels

• Mexican cheese

• vinaigrette mixed with prickly pear syrup

Find more cooking suggestions on Martha Burgess' website, www.flordemayoarts.com - click on "Native Foods."

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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