On a recent evening, quenching a dusty thirst with a prickly pear margarita at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, we had a flashback to 1908. It was in that year that a group of New Mexico agricultural scientists turned their attention to the commercial viability of the prickly pear and concluded, as historian Marc Simmons recounts, that this plant could easily thrive in poor soils with no irrigation while yielding a whopping fourteen tons of fruit per acre. Despite their conclusion, prickly pear farming has never really taken off here, and the humble fruit largely remains a colorful but fringe item in New Mexican cuisine.
We share this because the prickly pear has never felt more relevant. In our afternoon walks along dry ditches in mid-July, we’ve been struck by the thought that this drought-hardy and healthy native food deserves a serious reconsideration.
And we’re not alone. There is a long history of food festivals in New Mexico, but something about the upcoming New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival feels extra special. An ode to a deeply rooted and culturally important native plant, this festival is for the benefit not of a large-scale industry or farm, but for anyone willing to throw on some gloves and grab some tongs to harvest tunas(as prickly pears are known in Mexico) or nopales. It’s a love fest for an under-loved plant and we’re all for it.
In preparation, and in conjunction with the ever-important National Tequila Day, we’ve been testing out a few prickly pear margarita recipes of our own using a syrup made with Tijeras Canyon–grown prickly pears by NM Prickly Pear Jelly. The initial results are already in: No matter the recipe, there is nothing quite like watching the drama of monsoon clouds building on the horizon with a cold, pink glass of agave and cactus.
In parts of Mexico, August, or agosto, is sometimes jokingly referred to as hongosto due to the plethora of edible mushrooms, or hongos, that appear in the mountains. With recent rains, hongosto has come early to New Mexico, and mushrooms such as porcini are starting to pop up on local menu specials (La Boca was one recent sighting). Their season is short, so don’t miss the opportunity to try these special treats if you come across them.
And if you are fortunate enough to stumble upon some porcini as you traverse through the spruces and pines (and if you are absolutely sure they are in fact porcini!), or if you find some in local grocery stores, we offer a few tips: 1) before purchasing, check the bottom of the stem to make sure there aren’t any small holes, caused by tiny worms that can destroy inner parts of the mushroom, 2) before cooking, remove from under the cap the spongy section of gills, which can be gray in small porcini and yellow in larger ones, 3) remove dirt from the cap and stem with a damp cloth, and 4) slice and saute these umami-rich mushrooms simply in butter or ghee for at least 10 minutes, until they are slightly browned. We cooked ours with fresh sage and lovage. We added a little garlic and some crumbled pecans after five minutes, added some chopped dandelion greens for the last minute or two of cooking, and threw it all atop some fresh pasta for a meal that will not be forgotten soon.
Entrances & Exits
We lamented the permanent closure of Hartford Square, with its simple, tasty fare, its kind service, and a downtown café atmosphere that can be elusive in the sprawl of Albuquerque. But paper in the windows spells good news: Shawn Weed’s vegetarian mainstay, The Acre, will soon be opening a second location in what for many years was the Gold Street Caffe.
Sara Jo Mathews also lost a storefront to COVID-19; the popular Las Vegas cocktail bar, Borrachos Craft Booze and Brews, closed in March 2020 and has yet to reopen. We don’t know exactly what’s next for Borrachos, but we have fond memories of sipping the La Llorona (hibiscus-infused tequila, house-made triple sec, lime and agave), and there are rumors of a Hogwarts Alumni Ball coming this December. Meanwhile, Mathews’ new endeavor, Prairie Hill Café and Byron T’s Saloon, opened last week at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas. Their avocado toast involves edible flowers, and we’re excited about their pickles.
Retro Tones, the sour IPA currently on tap at Gravity Bound Brewing Co, is like a hot pink sunset in a glass. They opened just over a year ago in downtown Albuquerque, and in addition to brewing very good beer, they have a lovely patio and do good things like using solar power and rainwater catchment. When Lightning Strikes is a delightfully dry pilsner—perfect for happy hour in monsoon season.
Thinking about growing your own fruit tree? Consider planting one of the many historic and well-adapted varieties raised by Gordon Tooley in Truchas. He’s not only extremely knowledgeable about trees and their history here, he has also helped introduce an erosion control technique called keyline design that has benefited ranches around the state. He’s committed to the cause, and one of the nicest people out there. Read more about his work in this story.
Prickly Pear Coulis and Nopales Pickles are just a few items on “The Desert” menu for Open Kitchen at Ghost Ranch Music Weekend August 20 + 21. Neko Case and Rosanne Cash headline. Bedoine, Margo Price, Shannon McNally, Valerie June, and musician, scholar, and speaker (sometimes on food!) Lyla June will all be there, too.
A Las Vegas renaissance is underway. As Erin Berger writes here, a deep history and a strong community have helped a redesigned and hopeful set of new food options to gain steam. From The Skillet to the Prairie Hill Café to the Bar Castañeda, there’s no excuse to leave Las Vegas hungry.
TIME selected Santa Fe as one of the 100 greatest places in the world in 2021—because of Bishop’s Lodge, the railyard, and Bosque Brewing, and the Opuntia Cafe (which you may know was named for the humble prickly pear!).