Desert-to-Table Cooking at Tonto Bar & Grill Features Seasonal Prickly Pears

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See also: Tonto Bar & Grill's Amanda Crick: Caramelpalooza Candymakers

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.

"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.

After that, the puree is ready to be used in syrup, jelly, tea, salad dressing, sauces, sorbet and, of course, margaritas.

Peters uses prickly pear to make demi-glace for chicken and pork or gastrique for fish.

Because the size and quality of the prickly pear harvest (as well as all the other desert plants harvested) varies year to year, he doesn't put these items on a set menu but rather comes up with preparations "on the fly."

Below is a seasonal salad Peters makes: Mesquite-grilled salmon, glazed with prickly pear barbecue sauce, set on a bed of arugula with black beans, roasted corn, jicama, red peppers, red onion and corn chips, drizzled with prickly pear vinaigrette.

A split prickly pear makes a pretty garnish.

Meanwhile, Amanda Crick incorporates prickly pear into many of her desserts, one of them being playful Prickly Pear Pops, which she serves on a mesquite log. The Red Velvet cake inside is tinted red from prickly pear instead of food dye, while prickly pear also tints the white ganache coating on the outside a pretty pink.

You'll have to have a birthday or anniversary to snag Crick's complimentary Mexican chocolates, which are not available on the menu. Tucked into a little gold take-home box, they come with two different fillings: cajeta (goat's milk caramel) or prickly pear, the latter oozing out like a chocolate-covered cherry -- only better because it's faintly tart, not cloyingly sweet.

Although Flatt has his favorite desert spots to find desert edibles (saguaro flowers in particular), he also harvests as much as possible on his Rancho Manana property, which includes a golf course and clubhouse. The place is abundant with prickly pear cactus but also contains two gnarly old olive trees and two date palms, both of which drop fruit that Flatt uses in the restaurant.

Hank Shaw -- who wrote the cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook and toured the country touting it last year -- made a name for himself on an old (but new) practice that Eric Flatt has been doing for a decade without much fanfare. Isn't that refreshing?

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