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Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

Posted Feb 22 2010 3:23pm

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

PLEASE NOTE :: This post was whipped out when updating this site. I’ve re-posted it today, February 22nd. The original post was February 18th. Unfortunately, the comments you left were whipped out too. My apologies for any inconvenience.

Prickly pear might be considered an “exotic” fruit to some folks, but where I live, it is commonly available. This plant, Opuntia ficus-indica grows wild throughout the American southwest and I live close enough to Mexico [several hours drive or a quick plane ride], where this fruit has been a staple of their diet for thousands of years. I find prickly pear readily available practically year round at farmer’s markets, farmer’s who grow them, grocery and health food stores. Also, in the dessert area, you can find prickly pear growing wild or right in your own backyard. My first time trying this noteworthy fruit was in 2008, and last year when my husband and I visited one of his collegues, there were several cactus plants with loads of prickly pear fruit just waiting to be picked. She never eats them but when she saw how exited I was she got out the prongs and we picked and picked until I have a whole bag full.

Handling this cactus fruit can be a prickly experience. During one of my shopping excursions, I picked through a pile of this cacti, examining and holding them in my hands, all the while asking questions and chatting about them with the produce guys. One of the guys offered to give us [me and hubby] a sample and wandered off to get a knife. Meantime Peter was concerned that I was handling these cacti so freely and warned me to be careful. I didn’t feel anything sticking me, the skin looked smooth and free of any dreadful thorns or what-not, so I didn’t think much of it and said it was okay. Well, I paid for it later.

The produce guy returned with a knife and cut open a prickly pear. The insides revealed a beautiful vibrant red color flesh. He handed us each a slice – me, Peter, the other produce guy, and a random curious shopper – we all had a taste. I couldn’t quite put a label on the flavor at first, but after really tasting it, the closest comparative flavor would be to a watermelon, but more subtle, almost bland, yet sweet. My trusted produce informants explained that the flavor depends on the variety of prickly pear cactus, and that the range of flavors can be similar to strawberries, watermelons, citrus, figs, bananas, honeydew melons, and kiwifruit, with much less acidity. Prickly pear is full of seeds, and I’m told these seeds have use, more on that later. I was smitten and a few of these prickly fruits ended up in my shopping cart.

On the way home, I felt the first couple of prickly stickers poking from my hand. I didn’t know what those nearly invisible pokey things were called until I did a Google search and found they are called “globins”. Throughout the day, I would feel the prick of yet another globin in another area of my hand. Tweezer surgery was very necessary to rid myself of those annoying globins. On that note, be careful when handling these pretty, yet very prickly fruits. Next time I shop for them, I’ll try using one of those plastic bags to handle the fruit. They don’t call them prickly for nothing.

Prickly Pear Fruit

photography by Kretyen.

Prickly pear cactus is like a fruit and vegetable rolled up into one plant. It has two different edible sections, the pad and the pear. The pad of the cactus, or nopal, is considered the vegetable part, and the prickly pear, also known as tuna, Indian fig, or cactus pear, is like a fruit. The prickly pear grows from the cactus pad, it is first a flower blossom that protrudes from the pad (nopal), and when the blossom fades, it produces the edible fruit.

Depending on the variety, this fruit is available from early spring through late fall, but September through November is the best harvest time for eating fresh ripen cactus pears.

Even since the time of the Aztecs, before the Spanish people came to conquer Mexico, they said prickly pear was good for any kind of disease. – Dr. Maria L. Fernandez

The fruit, like other cacti, is a succulent and is mostly composed of water. Prickly pear provides essential nutrients. It is a source of carbohydrates and is an excellent source of antioxidants, having substantial amounts of vitamin C. Also, I found in comparison that prickly pear and aloe vera have a lot in common.

Some of the health benefits associated with prickly pear:

  • Immune support
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Helps manage cholesterol

Some of the nutrients found in prickly pear cactus:

Flavonoids | Pectin | Vitamin A | Vitamin B | Vitamin C

If you plan to harvest any part of the cacti, the fruit or the pad, please wear heavy-duty protective gloves.

Choose prickly pear cactus that is firm with a bright red skin. When the fruit is ripe, it is best to store it in a refrigerator.

Have a bowl of cold water, tongs, paper towels, and a vegetable peeler handy.

  1. Place the prickly pear cactus in a bowl of water to clean, and this also help remove some of the spines.
  2. Remove the fruit with tongs.
  3. Use the towels to hold the fruit while peeling it with a vegetable peeler.
  • Prickly pear pulp can be pushed or mashed through a strainer to make a fresh sauce, a puree, or vinaigrette.
  • Use to make a drink or in smoothies by placing the peeled fruit in a food processor or blender with filtered water, process/blend and pour through a strainer to remove any seeds.
  • Make a prickly pear sorbet or popsicles.

I mentioned that prickly pear is full of seeds, and that I’m told these seeds have use, well, the seeds can be dried and ground into flour. I love the versatility of natural foods and thought I haven’t yet tried to ground prickly pear seeds to flour, I think I’ll give it a try and experiment with it in a recipe and learn how it tastes. Save the seeds, dehydrate them [sun-dry or use a dehydrator], grind them up and see what happens. I’ll keep you posted and if you try this, I’d be interested to know how it turned out.

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