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6:14 PM Sat, Dec. 15th

'Prickly' ways to cook this desert gem - sweet, savory

"The Prickly Pear Cookbook" by Carolyn Neithammer

Did you know that throughout the world the humble prickly pear cactus has been used, not only for dietary, but also for medicinal purposes? This includes not only Mexico, Sicily, and America, but recently in such places as France and Israel. According to University of Arizona researcher Tom Sheridan, even "conquistadors recognized the benefits of the prickly pear" for curing scurvy. And no wonder, as it contains substantial amounts of vitamin C and beta-carotene. It has also been used as a remedy for burns, for reducing joint inflammation, and for increasing production of the "good" HDL cholesterol. And, according to several researchers, it has been found especially effective in lowering blood sugar when treating type II diabetes.

However, none of those benefits were the reason I bought a copy of Carolyn Neithammer's "The Prickly Pear Cookbook" a few months ago. The reason was to learn to prepare even more dishes containing a plant I find delicious and have enjoyed for years. In fact, I'd been so busy trying out those wonderful recipes the past few months that I hadn't even taken time to read about all the other benefits I might be receiving! But even without those, this book is well worthwhile. There are recipes using juice or syrup made from the lovely prickly pear fruit, or tunas, to make prickly pear muffins, kuchen, compote, jelly, barbeque sauce, Southwest or port sauces for beef, chicken, pork dished, including meatballs - to say nothing of deserts: sorbet, sherbert, gelato, ice cream, pie and tiramisu. And then there are the margaritas and other drinks. The yummy dishes to prepare with the tender pads, or nopales, are enough to make you drool. There is nopalito salsa, nopalito fondue, french fried nopalitos, Chicken Yucatan, fish in nopalito sauce.

In case you are wondering, you don't have to go out and tackle the cactus itself to enjoy these recipes (although I admit that it is something I take great satisfaction in): prickly pear syrup and juice is widely available, online and at local stores such as Spice Traveler, and you can find the pads at Fry's, Safeway and Wal-Mart. So bon appetite!

- by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company Event Coordinator Peregrine Book Company, 219-A N. Cortez St.,

is in downtown Prescott.