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’m also a stones throw away from Mexico, where it has been a staple of their diet for thousands of years. I find prickly pear, especially at this time of year, readily available in grocery stores, health food stores, and at farmer’s markets from farmer’s who grow them, and for the first time, I finally tried this noteworthy fruit. It was a learning experience in every sense of the word.
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 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 curious shopper – and 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 a much less acidity. Prickly pear is full of seeds, and I’m told these seeds have use, more on that later. Needless to say, 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 to call those nearly invisible pokey things until I did a Google search and found they are called “globins”. Throughout the day, I would get pricked with 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 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 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.
Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus
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:
Helps manage cholesterol
Some of the nutrients found in prickly pear cactus:
Flavonoids | Pectin | Vitamin A | Vitamin B | Vitamin C
Selecting and Storing Prickly Pear Cactus
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.
How to Handle and Peel Prickly Pear Cactus
Have a bowl of cold water, tongs, paper towels, and a vegetable peeler handy.
Place the prickly pear cactus in a bowl of water to clean, and this also help remove some of the spines.
Remove the fruit with tongs.
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.
How To Use The Seeds From Prickly Pear Cactus
The seeds can be dried and ground into flour, interesting. I love the versatility of natural foods. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ll soon pick up more cactus pears, save the seeds, dehydrate them, and see what happens. I’ll keep you posted.