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Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Opuntia is a genus of cactus which produces a sweet studded fruit–the prickly pear. Like all true cacti, the Opuntia genus comes from the Americas. Opuntia plants are naturally occurring from Connecticut and Long Island west to Chicago and southern Canada! More and more species can be found growing in the American southwest down into Mexico (where the greatest diversity of Opuntia species are found). Varieties of the plants also grow naturally throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and down into South America (although “naturally” might be the wrong word—the peoples of the Americas have been instrumental in the spread of these plants for a long time).

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

Opuntia plants consist of large flat green pads which have two sorts of spine. There are long sharp hard spines capable of drawing blood & causing serious injury, but also, more insidiously, there are infinitesimal hairlike prickles called glochids. If touched, these glochids feel like fur but the microscopic ends break off and penetrate the skin where they prickle agonizingly. Argh! Just writing about them is making me itch.

Succu_Opuntia_howeyi_02_detail_-_spines_and_glochids

Prickly pears are incredibly hardy plants which are resistant to drought, disease, and animals. They easily grow into great clonal colonies which people sometimes use as a sort of natural fence. In the sixties, Cuba planted a prickly pear wall all around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay so that fleeing dissidents would be unable to seek shelter there.

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

However it is not for its spines, its toughness, or its prodigious ability to grow that the prickly pear is principally known, but for its sweet colorful fruit. These cactus fruits are colloquially (but wrongly) known as “pears” or “figs” in English (and endless other names in many, many other languages). The fruit are filled with delicious juice, tasty flesh, and hard but edible seeds. The fruits have only modest amounts of essential nutrients (particularly fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium), but they are filled with phytochemicals–a catch-all term for molecules made by plants which may have biological/medical significance. Scientists believe prickly pear fruit may be beneficial for mitigating the negative health consequences of diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity (and hangovers too). Additionally, certain prickly pear phytochemicals may have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. There were lots of ambiguous words and conditional phrases in there. I don’t know what to tell you…Medical science is working on it, but they have a lot on their plate.

Prickly_pears

Whatever the health benefits, prickly pear is delicious and it grows in places where other things do not. This means the plant has been imported to Australia, Asia, Africa, the middle east, and many other places. It is easy to grow, and hard to kill, so prickly pear is (quietly) one of the great invasive species of the time. Since it has mostly established itself in forsaken deserts where nothing was growing anyway, nobody is particularly worried…for the moment. Did I mention forsaken deserts? The prickly pear is particularly at home in Israel and Palestine where it has become an integral part of both cultures. I was first shown how to cut open and eat prickly pears by a Jew who said that hardened native-born Israeli Jews who farm the desert call themselves “sabras” (the modern Hebrew term for the fruits) because they are spiny and tough on the outside but sweet and generous in their hearts.

I really like prickly pears and I have been wanting to make a bunch of prickly pear ice cream custard. I will let you know how this project goes…I have the feeling it is going to turn into a big hilarious magenta mess, so stay tuned for that!

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

PecanGrove

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