When it comes to New Mexican cuisine, one ingredient stands head and shoulders above the rest. Chile is, after all, the official state vegetable and the official state question (“Red or Green?”). But there are plenty of other edibles that are part of our state’s history. Take, for example, the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus. It’s been a staple of Native cooking for centuries, and can be employed in a variety of dishes. But how often do you think of putting it on your dinner plate? Well, the organizers of the New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival are doing their best to whet your appetite for the spiny staple.
“I used have a small farm in the North Valley and thought a lot about how to get farmers and ranchers to use more sustainable crops and more native plants.” says Will Thomson, organizer of this year’s third annual outing. “In talking with our partners—through conversations with Three Sister Kitchen, the nonprofit Downtown—we decided to create a festival around one of the most iconic, native and sustainable food crops.”
So, why prickly pear? “It’s native to our region and to northern Mexico,” points out Thomson. “It is eaten all around the world, mainly in Mexico; but also in Italy and the Middle East. But it’s not used that much in New Mexico, and you can do a whole lot with it. The fruit can be eaten, peeled like a fresh fruit. You can make jams, jellies, syrups, ice creams. Then the pads, the nopales, are also edible. You can make tacos, pickles.”
The first day of the food fest gets underway 10am to 6pm on Sept. 4 in Downtown Albuquerque, along Gold Ave. “The first day is for cooks and eaters,” says Thomson. “The second day, on Sept. 5, is for farmers, ranchers and gardeners.” The first day features cooking demonstrations, beverages, recipe competitions and live music. This portion is open to the general public. Tickets are $6 in advance or $8 on the day of ($5 for students and children).
“We’ll have more than 40 vendors with all kinds of different prickly pear products. They’ll be selling prickly pear donuts, prickly pear paletas, prickly pear cider, prickly pear liquors,” says Thomson. In addition to the great variety of local and regional vendors, Thomson promises a host of cooking demos, including “one about processing prickly pear with a focus on drying and powdering with Tina Archuletta who runs the plant-based nutrition catering company Itality. Michael Sedilla and Joe Romero from Three Sisters Kitchen will prepare a prickly pear milk tea with chewy prickly pear boba balls. Chef Marie from Bocadillos will make a prickly pear hot sauce.” Following the cooking demos are a string of local bands including Future Scars, Lindy Vision and Prism Bitch.
The second day is aimed at producers of prickly pear and takes place at the Gutiérrez-Hubbell House in the South Valley from 10am to 2pm. There will be talks on using prickly pear for building healthy soil and employing the cactus as livestock fodder. Growing and starting a food business based on prickly pear is also on the list. These second day events are limited capacity, and participants must sign up in advance. But the lectures are free thanks to the participation of Bernalillo County. To learn more about the two-day event, go to nmpricklypearfest.com.