Desert-to-Table Cooking at Tonto Bar & Grill Features Seasonal Prickly Pears
See also: Tonto Bar & Grill's Amanda Crick: Caramelpalooza Candymakers
Jerri Parness Photography
Eric Flatt, co-owner of Tonto Bar & Grill in Cave Creek doesn't blather about the local food movement or the part his historic restaurant plays in it. But he's been the local-est of locavores for 10 years now, gathering ocotillo flowers, cholla buds, mesquite beans, jojoba seeds and saguaro fruit from the desert and using them in creative ways on his Southwestern-inflected menu.
"Desert-to-table" he calls it with a chuckle that suggests he doesn't really take marketing hype and pretentious labels all that seriously.
Right now, the desert's prickly pear cactus are loaded with deep-pink fruit, and Flatt and his crew -- executive chef Ryan Peters and pastry chef Amanda Crick -- are gettin' while the gettin's good, harvesting the firm, thorny fruit with kitchen tongs and plunking them in a bucket.
Jerri Parness Photography Eric Flatt picking prickly pears
"Watch out for the glochids," Flatt warns, pointing to the short, nasty spines that are murder to remove from fingers. Some of the fruit (and we don't pick these) have a white, furry substance Flatt identifies as cochineal, an insect that eats the fruit and creates the red dye that Native Americans use for rugs. He mashes them with the tongs and clear red juice bleeds out.
Once the buckets are full, Peters and Crick head back to the kitchen, where the cactus's long, sharp spines and glochids are singed over a gas flame before the fruit is cut and put into a skillet with a little water, where it simmers until it's soft (about 30 minutes). After that, the fruit is pureed and taste-tested for sweetness. If it's too tart, a little agave nectar is added before the fruit is strained twice -- once through a China cap and again through a chinois.
Jerri Parness Photography Simmering prickly pear fruit
After that, the puree is ready to be used in syrup, jelly, tea, salad dressing, sauces, sorbet and, of course, margaritas.