It’s high season for tuna wrangler Jean Groen, but the Apache Junction cookbook author won’t set foot near an ocean in the next several weeks. The tuna she’s after lives on land; it’s the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.
“People always say, ‘Do you really eat this stuff?’ and I tell them, ‘You better believe it.’” laughs Groen, 76. In shorts and sneakers, she’s just scoured a friend’s acreage in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, looking for plump, deep red fruit huddled on the green ridgelines of prickly pear cactus pads.
Called “tunas” in Spanish, the fruits are ripe for the picking now through next month. Groen, co-author of local tomes “Foods of the Superstitions: Old and New,” and “Plants of the Sonoran Desert and Their Many Uses,” will show home cooks how to take advantage of their unique flavor in workshops at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior. She’ll also hand out free samples of her creations at Saturday’s Cactus Fiesta in Queen Creek.
In the hourlong arboretum classes, Groen and other volunteers show visitors of all ages how to remove the “pears” with tongs and rid them of as many glochids — fine, sharp whiskers — and spines as possible. It’s a trick that can, and probably should, be tackled several ways, from brushing the still-attached fruit with a handful of desert broom cuttings or shaking them in a jar of sand, to rolling them on the ground with a broom-rake or brushing them in a bucketful of water.
Also important is learning where to pick the fruits: Native plants are protected by law, and it is illegal to harvest fruit from city, county, state and federal lands or roadways. You may pick them on your own property or on a friends’ with permission, or you can get a permit from the Arizona State Land Department to harvest prickly pears on state land. (Go to www.land.state.az.us/programs.htm and click on “Applications,” then “Remove Natural Products,” or call  542-2699.)
Guests in the class learn how to juice the fruit by cooking and mashing it or putting it through a juicer or blender. They can also pick up ready-made products or books containing recipes.
A longtime favorite in souvenir-shop candy, prickly pear fruit can be used in many ways, says Groen. She makes barbecue sauce, jelly, quick breads and spreads from it, and her margarita recipe won first place at the 2005 Scottsdale Culinary Festival’s Garduno’s Margarita Village.
“The easiest thing for a lot of people to try for the first time would probably be a smoothie,” says Groen. She suggests pulsing three or four large, raw “pears” in a blender, straining the juice from the seedy, spiny pulp, and then blending (in a clean blender) with ice, fruit and yogurt of choice.
“It tastes kind of like watermelon, but not really. It’s hard to describe,” she says. “The only thing I ever add to it is sugar and lemon juice, and pectin, if I’m making jelly. It tastes pretty good as is.”