(On summer heat, prickly pear, and cooling drinks)

nopal2Let’s set the scene: its 100 degrees outside, and the air in your house is still, stifling, stuck. Opening the windows doesn’t help, because the air that comes in is hot. So you keep the curtains closed, the windows closed, and stay still. Sweating. There’s stuff to do, but its too hot. Things to write, but its too hot. Beds to make, but that involves movement, and who wants to move because its hot. At some point the cat walks over and collapses on the tile floor nearby and stares at you, beseechingly, wondering why you can’t make it stop. It doesn’t stop. This is what summer looks like from my perspective. 

I have a friend who loves the summer. We’re opposites in many ways: the second it starts to heat up she gets happy, and I get grumpy. When the summer solstice comes, I get excited knowing that fall is coming, even if its far away. The arrival of fall makes her sad because summer is so far off. But not me! When the Autumn arrives I'm in utter bliss. Hot days make her happy. I’m trying to understand this better, understand what it is about the heat that is pleasant. So far I've come up with this: heat relaxes things and people. Heat means one has to move more slowly. Heat brings to mind places I’ve not spent much time, like the American South, where people supposedly sit around drinking ‘tea’ (as a Brit I beg to differ), eating watermelon, doing things slowly, and drawling. I took an unofficial Facebook poll, and discovered that there are some other things, according to people who like the summer, that are good about hot days and balmy nights: fireflies, cicadas, warm earth, shaded areas, cold fruit salad, iced tea, ice cream, stone fruit, watermelon, partial nudity, cleansing sweat*. I’ve resolved to change my approach this year: to accept that it is hot, to find things to like about it, and to find things that help in coping with it. One of my favourite of these newfound coping mechanisms, that is swiftly becoming an obsession, is prickly pear cactus. 

Prickly pears (opuntia spp.) are common and abundant in many states. Here in Southern California, and throughout the Southwest I assume, its quite common to find them in Mexican grocery stores, already de-spined and ready to be thrown on the grill (if you haven't had grilled cactus paddles, I suggest you go out and do so immediately as they're delicious). All parts of the plant are edible, from the big paddles to the ripe fruits to the flowers, and all parts of the plant are medicinal, which makes it an extra-useful thing to have around.

For prickly pear as medicine (and actually for all the opuntias), think the following: cool, calm, moisten, soothe, heal. Like a cool river flowing through a parched landscape. And think how perfect that is for this time of year, for the dried out and cracked up, the overheated, the overirritated. Think about the skin and the mucous membranes, and how these mucous membranes are really just skins on our insides anyway, and that cooling, calming, soothing, healing effect on any of those skins, for things like burns, irritations, wounds. Think about it internally for cooling and soothing overheated lungs or an irritated digestive tract. Or externally for sunburn, for healing irritations or rashes. Or systemically for the grumpy overheated winter-loving grouch *points at self* who wants nothing more than to stick her head in the freezer.

I’m currently working on a prickly pear face cream (cooling, soothing, healing, moistening? Yes please!) for my July Surprise Box, and so I've had a LOT of prickly pear paddle juice lying around. Its slimy and its soothing, and is useful in this regard either externally or internally. I like to throw it in ice cube trays to use as burn treatments, or to ice summer drinks. More about the prickly pear paddle, and its uses, in upcoming posts. As for now, however, I want to talk about the fruit, and my favourite (at present) summer drink. Its really easy-- a few ingredients, thrown in a blender and then strained into a glass. Its full of electrolytes and is cooling, calming and moistening to boot. Plus, its pink. You can never go wrong with such a bright pink drink...

NB: For more information about opuntia identification and the genus as a whole, there’s a fantastic article by 7song on the subject in the current issue of Plant Healer Magazine

nopal1Prickly pear cooler

Innards of 3 prickly pear fruit Juice of 1 fresh young coconut** 1 lime Prickly pear juice ice cubes for serving (optional)

In a blender, pour the coconut water, the innards of the prickly pear fruits (to peel them, slice along one side, carefully pry them open then just scoop it out with a spoon), and the juice of the lime. Blend on medium for about 20 seconds, then strain into a glass.

*thank you to all you lovely people on Facebook who put up with my silly questions and play along. **to open coconuts, check this out.