Honey, do you know where my tackle box is? I thought I’d hook a couple of tunas for dinner.”
Yes, I admit it. The first time I saw tunas on a Mexican menu, I thought I’d find something fishy in my salad, not the fruit that is so important to Mexico it appears on their coat of arms.
I’d heard the other name for them. Prickly pear. Loved the way those two words worked together. But I couldn’t remember ever eating one. I think it’s because they’re like Don Day’s Wife after she discovers that seats 14D and 14E aren’t really an exit row. Tunas don’t travel well.
Tunas or prickly pear or cactus fruit are, as their third name tells us, the fruit of a cactus. Specifically the Opuntia cactus which stand like sentinels on the landscape of most of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The cactus paddles always remind me of a girl called Annette and how I watched The Mickey Mouse Club well into my teens in order to fulfill my fun with Funicello fantasies as she grew up…or should I say grew out.
Every fruit from every variety is edible but you’ll only find four or five in San Miguel de Allende. And to find those, you’ll have to go to a local market that doesn’t have the word super in front of it. Which means there are a lot of people in this town who may have never even tried one. Which is, I guess, the main reason why I’m writing this post.
Of those four or five tunas, one is very different, so different it even has its own name. That name is the bit of a mouthful xoconostle with the “x” in this case pronounced like “ch” in chocolate. Unlike almost all of the other tunas that you might find in San Miguel, xoconostles are sour and their green flesh (and sometimes skin) is used in salsas, relishes, salads and, occasionally, stews. A very simple and very tasty salsa can be made by removing the seeds, oven roasting the xoconostles and blending them with a little garlic and canned chipotle peppers. Denver Reyes, the chef/owner of San Miguel restaurant Los Olivos de Denver, makes an outstanding xoconostle and verdolaga soup.
The rest of the tunas that I’ve ever found in San Miguel are sweet. But sweetness is about the only thing they have in common. Some taste like peaches, some like cherries, some like kiwis, others like bananas, and a lot of them like watermelon.
The locals tend to favor the fruit of the white tuna which has the palest skin and flesh but is more of a pale green than white. I remember hiking with chef Denver.
“This is an opuntia tuna-blanca”, said Denver. “They’re the ones we want. They’re the best.”
“And why?”, I asked.
“Because they taste the best. They’re the ones you always want to eat, whether it’s the nopales or the tunas”, Denver replied.
“And how do you know this is a blanca?”, I asked. “They all look the same to me.”
“I guess it helps to have played in these fields since I first learned to walk”, said Denver.
For those who haven’t spent their childhood running through Mexican fields and dodging cactus spines, there are people like Margret Hefner, a fellow resident of San Miguel who is busily completing an interactive ebook called Frutas y Verduras, Guide to the Fresh Taste of Mexico.
The world of tunas is a big, wide world, without many tour guides, so I asked Margret for help. She sent me this photo and told me, “It’s interesting to compare tunas to melons. The light green tuna has a flavor that is slightly mineral, like cucumber, with the sweetness of a honeydew melon, and is similar in color… orange, like canteloupe, and the the bright pink tuna has a sweetness and flavor like watermelon. In my research, I learned that this has to do with the breakdown of the carotenoids – the color compounds – which break down into specific flavor molecules. These same color compounds are antioxidants which are touted as beneficial for health, and best from whole foods – the more color in your diet, the better.”
“As you can see,” Margret continued, ” I juiced these – just put them in my food processor and then pushed them through a strainer. As a juice, they can be reduced by boiling into a slightly syrupy sauce which is a nice change on pancakes or desserts and gives amazing color.”
The second image that Margret sent me shows some tuna cut in half along with, at the bottom, xoconostle. As you can see, the seeds of the xoconostle are all located in the center of the fruit. The remainder of the tunas have the seeds spred throughout the flesh and are one of the other factors as to which tunas are the most desirable.
Tunas begin to ripen in Central Mexico in July and continue to be readily available through to the end of November. If you’ve got a little more….no, make that a lot more…sense of adventure than Don Day, you don’t have to go far to pick your own in the wild. Four or five blocks from my centrally located San Miguel home, there’s an empty lot. That empty lot is full enough with tunas to feed a family with very active parents.
Picking your own though first requires a few song and dance moves dodging the spines on the paddles. Then there are the glochids, the very nasty glochids. They’re the hairy spines that, even if you use kitchen tongs or wear gloves, always find a way to getcha. And getcha good. Then, when you get them home, you may discover that just because a tuna looks ripe doesn’t mean it’s really ripe.
For great indoorsmen like Don Day, the way to pick tunas is at the Tuesday market in San Miguel de Allende. There you will usually find only two varieties of tunas, the sour xoconostles I’ve already mentioned and the reddish purple ones with deep red flesh that are so sweet and so juicy..
The way to buy those tunas is with all of the dirty work done. The fruit and veg vendors at the market will remove all of those evil glochids and, unlike me, be able to peel them without losing half the fruit. They’ll then place about seven or eight of them in a plastic bag, tie a nice little knot in it and charge you all of ten pesos or about 70 cents.
For guidance on how to eat them, I again turned to Chef Denver from Olivo Verde.
Denver told me, “…the best way is in the morning when they are freshly cut off the nopal. You can mix it with pulque and you can also have it as a fruit water. You can make marmalade, too.”
You’ll find the reddish purple tuna flesh used in candies and, if you’re ever in Oaxaca, you may see a spoon of it on an almond and rice milk called horchata. I’ve seen a baked tuna tart and the fruit also works nicely with goat cheese and pecans on top of a green salad. You can even drink tuna beer if, for some strange reason, you don’t want your beer to taste of malt and hops.
Before heading down to the kitchen to see if, by some rare chance, Don Day’s Wife picked up some tunas (it’s Tuesday, market day), I must include one more tuna fact and it’s the reason I think a lot of people don’t latch on to them and the reason Don Day’s Wife’s probably didn’t buy them today. That reason is seeds. It’s not a big reason. It’s not a small reason. It’s a medium-sized reason. The seeds of tunas are not big enough to spit out like you would with a watermelon. But they’re big enough that you feel a little weird swallowing them like you would with a pomegranate.
My advice? Do like the locals do and go ahead and swallow. And if you can’t handle swallowing, then strain ’em. The juice of two or three topped in a glass with Seven Up and the juice from half a lime makes a nice soft drink. The addition of an ounce or two of vodka makes an even nicer hard drink.
You can receive an alert when Margret Hefner’s ebook Frutas y Verduras, Guide to the Fresh Taste of Mexico is ready by leaving your name and email address at http://foodforhealthmexico.com/. You can sample Denver Reyes’ dishes at Los Olivos de Denver, 20 de Enero Sur #44, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.