How We “Wrangle Tuna ” Here in Arizona

Contrary to what you’re probably thinking right now, I’m not going to tell you about deep sea fishing (and you know that there’s no ocean here in the middle of the Sonoran desert, anyway). Instead, I am going to take you with us into the nearby desert for another hand-picked cactus harvest.

“Huh?” you’re saying to yourself. “What the heck does ‘wrangling tuna’ have to do with the Arizona desert?” First, you have to understand that “tuna” (or tuna fig) is one of the names for the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. And harvesting them in late August when it’s very hot and getting those thorny fruits off the spiny plant and processing them are not easy tasks, so “wrangling” seems like an apt description of what we endure to get these delicacies onto our tables and into your drinks and sauces. That’s why, over the years, the method has been dubbed “tuna wrangling.”

Ripe for the picking

A peek inside


In this less-than-ideal environment, we ventured out to hand-pick and prepare the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, just like Native Tribes of the southwestern United States and Mexico have done for centuries before us, where it has been a valued source for food and medicine. These days, prickly pear jam is a frequent tourist souvenir, and the fruit is sold as the cure for chronic inflammation and pain. Here, at Tonto and Cartwright’s, the sweet, somewhat strawberry tasting fruit has much more delicious uses in our unique cocktails, desserts and sauces.

The prickly pear’s large, colorful blossoms appear in yellow, pink, red or purple and grow from the tip of cactus nodules (paddles) or “nopales.” These blossoms later ripen into the delicious red fruit appropriately named prickly pear, (and also called nopal cactus fruit, cactus pear, Barbary pear, Indian fig and, of course, tuna fig…or simply “tuna”) that is ready for harvest during the late summer and early fall.

Before I discuss this year’s harvest, I’d like to tell you an interesting prickly pear tale. According to Mexican legend, this cactus played a key role with the Aztecs. After they were forced out of Chapultepec, they wandered for the next 200 years, searching for a place to settle. Their main god, Huitzilopochtli, appeared to the leaders and told them to find a place where a great eagle was perched on a cactus killing a snake. This place was eventually found on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325 and named as their capital–Tenochtitlan, “the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus.”

Pastry Chef Amanda Crick

Chef Ryan Peters

Back to our 2012 tuna wrangling. Our chefs and I ventured out into the desert to harvest the prickly pear using long metal tongs to grasp the fruit, then gave them a half turn to plop them off the pads. We placed them in a plastic bucket, took them to the kitchen, gave them a nice bath and placed them on our mesquite wood grill to burn off the spines. Next, we positioned them in a large skillet, added some water and sugar, and poached them until tender. Then, we pureed the mixture and put it through a strainer.

Cooked puree going through the first strainer

Tonto's Prickly Pear Margarita

What happens with the resulting mixture is yours for the tasting. You can sip one of our prickly pear margaritas or a prickly pear martini or margatini…and even finish off your meal with a one-of-a-kind, mouth-watering dessert named a “Prickly Pear Cake Pop.” Plus, you’ll find it in some of our special BBQ sauces and dressings, like our “Hand-Picked Saguaro Fruit Vinaigrette.” Be sure to check them out for yourself on the Tonto Bar and Grill and Cartwright’s Sonoran Ranch House drink, appetizer, entree and dessert menus.

Prickly Pear BBQ Glazed Salmon Salad


Prickly Pear Cake Pops

You may also want to check out Nikki Buchanan’s blog on Chow Bella: