Thursday, April 26, 2012

Prickly Pears

Opuntia engelmannii - Our most common prickly pear cactus species here in Central Texas

Seen any of the new growth on our prickly pears lately? 'Tis the season for many wild edibles, but these young, tender pads are one of the most substantial, nutritious and prolific vegetables available right now. Here's one way to harvest and process them:

1. Put on some very thick, sturdy gloves.
2. While holding one pad with your gloved hand, cut each new pad (new ones have tiny green leaves coming out of the areoles, along with thorns) off just above where it has sprouted off an older pad.
3. While still holding it, trim off the outer edge all the way around to eliminate the many tiny thorns that congregate along the margins of the pad.
4. While still holding the pad, take a knife and scrape off the leaves and thorns from the surface of the pad.
5. Throw the partially cleaned pad in your harvest bucket or bag and proceed to the next pad.
6. Once you've collected all that you need, return to your kitchen and wash the pads under a steady stream of water. At this point, you might want to replace your thorny outdoor gloves with some equally sturdy indoor gloves because the pads will still have some tiny thorns attached. Beware, they hurt!
7. Once you've cleaned off the pads with water (it's OK if you didn't remove every single tiny thorn) slice them and cook them up or freeze them for later use.

These pads were harvested out on our farm. After slicing them, I slid them into a freezer bag and stuck them in the freezer to use for tacos later.

* I will publish more detailed instructions and recipes soon!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Agarita Harvest

The kids inspect the agarita bush

We harvested agarita berries on Sunday at our farm near Wimberley, Texas. Chris snapped some pictures of the event:

Joe Henry and Garner with the wagon full of tools
First, we loaded the wagon with various harvest baskets, plastic bins and lids. When harvesting agaritas, it's easiest to use something wide, sturdy and lipped to place underneath the bush to catch the berries.

I find it easiest to harvest by limb and section, but there are several ways to get these sweet-tart little berries off the plant. I lay my container (in the above picture, it is a plastic lid from a storage bin) on the ground under a few limbs. I'll then hold the end of each limb and beat it with a stick or wooden spoon. The ripe berries will fall onto the container along with some debris.

Whacking the limb over the container

 Once I've moved my containers around to all parts of  the bush and I feel like I've whacked enough limbs, I'll begin to sort out the berries (or red jewels, as my kids call them) from the debris.

Baskets can also be used for the harvest

Pulling the good berries from the blue bin and placing them in the yellow bin

After I sort out the good berries from the bad, I then process them or freeze them for later. Here are a few more shots from our agarita harvest:

My helpers

Garner preferred to harvest the berries by hand and eat every other one

Bringing in the Harvest

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Berberis trifoliolata - the most common species found in Texas

Agaritas are ripe here in Central Texas, y'all! Quick, get out there and harvest them before the birds eat them all. Eat the red-ripe berries raw, seeds and all, or extract their juices to make wine, jelly, sauces, meat glazes and other creative dishes.
 The story of grannies in long skirts and boots, beating agarita bushes with sticks to release the berries is commonly told throughout Texas. Indeed, the agarita berry is plentiful in Central, South and West Texas and is sweetly tart, making it an excellent candidate for nibbling trailside or collecting in large quantities for sauces, mixed drinks, juices, jellies, and wines.

Agarita blooms are one of the first sweet smells to enchant the hiker in early spring. Follow your nose to the tiny yellow flowers covering a small shrub distinguished by its tough, evergreen leaves with extra firm, spiny edges. Remember the shrub’s location, usually found on a fenceline or at the edge of the woods, and return in a few weeks to collect the tiny berries that ripen to a deep red.

When agarita berries are ripe, they can be plucked from the bush and eaten raw though the tender-fingered should beware. Harvesting the berries bare-handed is tricky. Large quantities of the berries can be collected by laying a sheet, kiddie pool, box or other container (preferably wide, rigid, and lipped) underneath the bush. Hold one or two limbs at a time and gently shake or whack it with a stick so that the berries fall into the container - ripe ones will fall easily. Once collected, the stems, leaves and other plant debris should be removed by winnowing in front of a fan, picking through by hand (again, not for the tender-fingered) or sifting through on a counter like you would sift through dried beans for rocks (this method was actually recommended by a Texas granny.) Washing and sifting can be done simultaneously by placing the harvest in a basin of water and then gently running your hands through the mixture - most of the debris will stick to your hand and the dirt will fall to the bottom of the basin. You can rinse your hands off and repeat as needed. When all the debris is removed, dry the berries on a towel.

Once the berries are washed, you can freeze them or prepare them.  To extract their juices, cover the berries with hot water and let them soak for at least 30 minutes. Mash them with a potato masher and then pour the mixture through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. The berries can also be blended with a bit of water, and then strained or they can be juiced using a standard juicer. Do not boil the berries since this will cause berberine, a bitter alkaloid, to be released. Fresh agaritas can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two but are best used fresh or frozen for processing later. Agarita juice can also be frozen for up to a year.

Agarita Jelly Recipe
Makes 2 pints
Slightly tart and perfectly sweet, the soft-red colored agarita jelly is a Texas treat on everything from biscuits to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

4 c agaritas
1 package of pectin
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
¾ c sugar per cup of agarita juice

Place agaritas in a bowl or pan and pour hot water over the berries just until covered. Let sit for 30 minutes then mash vigorously with a potato masher to release the juices. Strain through cheesecloth or a jelly bag and squeeze thoroughly to extract all of the juices. Measure and pour the juice into a pot and add the pectin and lemon juice. Bring to a boil then add ¾ c sugar per cup of agarita juice and stir constantly. Bring to a boil for 2-4 minutes. Test the liquid to see if it will gel by taking a spoonful out, letting it cool, and then pouring it back in. If some of liquid runs together into a sticky sheet, it’s ready to gel. Pour the hot liquid into sterilized jars, place the caps and rings on tightly and boil in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Note: This recipe does not make a lot of jelly so if you plan on eating it within a few weeks, you don't need to can it and process in a hot water bath. Simply put in in airtight containers and store it in your refrigerator.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Eriobotrya japonica

It's loquat harvesting season here in Central Texas! Though they are not native, these bushy evergreen trees have naturalized quite well and are easy to find growing in our wildlands. Native to China, they are sometimes called the Chinese plum.

A friend commented that the shores of Lady Bird Lake in Austin are loaded right now with ripe loquats and the best way to harvest them is by boat (or SUP board, as she does.) Eat the fruit raw or cooked; the seeds can be planted to produce additional trees. Many people peel the fruit before eating, but the skin is edible so bite right in and taste the subtle hints of citrus, peach and melon.

One of Chris' co-workers delivered several pounds of loquats to us so I made loquat pie! Check out Addie Broyle's latest article in the Austin360 blog for some more loquat recipes.

To prepare the loquats, I cut the ends off, cut them in half and then removed the seeds

Loquat Pies

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wild Cardoon

Carduus nutans
I spent some time foraging at MadroƱo Ranch  near Medina, Texas last week in preparation for an upcoming class. I was thrilled to discover a field full of wild cardoons. Related to artichokes and commonly called musk thistles, the wild cardoon's stem and flower bud can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are also edible but should be trimmed to remove the nasty spines.
Nibbling peeled Carduus stem

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Yucca Flowers

Yucca Flowers, Yucca species
Eat the ivory-white flowers raw or cooked, but be sure to pluck out the central stamen and pistils since they can be bitter. Some yucca species produce palatable fruit that can be eaten raw or cooked.

The flowering stalks of the menacing daggers erect themselves in the spring to tempt their pollinators and impress with their display. Though brief and fleeting, the beautiful white blooming flowers are a unique, crunchy texture and nutty taste for our tables.

Many different yucca species grow in Texas and all have edible flowers and fruit. Of course we call some plants yuccas that aren’t true yuccas (such as the red yucca - Hesperaloe parvifolia) so be sure you’re indulging in the right kind of flower. Some yuccas are considered trees and others shrubs. Whether their fibrous, dagger-like leaves are high in the sky or low to the ground, you’ll have to figure out a way to trim past them to harvest the tropical-looking treat. Simply bend them aside or snip off the sharp tips with pruners or clippers, and pluck the flowers off the central stalk. Take care of your precious eyes!

Once harvested, the yucca flowers should be soaked in water for several minutes to drown out any bugs tucked inside the petals.  Once washed, pluck the central stamen and pistils and eat the crunchy, outer petals raw or cooked. The whole flowers are gorgeous stuffed with anything sweet or savory. The flowers will keep in the vegetable crisper for a few days, though they tend to turn bitter.