What the Fork?: A prickly situation at The Gathering Restaurant

By Wynter Holden

Common sense says use what you have, right? If you live by the sea, catch and cook fish. On the plains or in the forest, pick berries and hunt game. And in the desert -- well, unless you want to hack up a cactus and start chowing down, you're pretty much stuck. Then again...

A few years ago, I caught an episode of a Discovery Channel reality game show where two contestants were challenged to cook and eat cholla cactus buds. Since then, I've been fascinated by local fare involving this plentiful desert ingredient. Prickly pear jelly and cactus lollipops can be found on any kitschy Scottsdale souvenir shop shelf, but truly gourmet cactus foodstuffs are hard to find.

Chef Travis Dimmick fills that gap with exotic creations like Roasted Quail stuffed with Cholla Bud Risotto, currently on the menu at The Gathering Restaurant at Camp Verde's Cliff Castle Casino. Not only does he use the buds -- which have to be plucked and the needles removed before use -- the dish is also garnished with sweet saguaro syrup, a rare treat in Phoenix.

Yes, we have those giant three-armed green bandits on every friggin' mountain, hill or nicely xeriscaped lawn in town. But apparently their protected status extends to the "fruit" they bear, which can only be harvested and cooked by a handful of folks (mainly Native Americans) licensed by the state. Go figure. Guess that just leaves roadrunner stew. No, too gamey. Scorpion puffs? All crunch, no meat. Javelina BBQ ribs? Now, that could be interesting.

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