Prickly Pear 101
The bear necessities of life will come to you when you are not afraid of the Prickly Pear.
Paws down, Prickly Pear is one of the most interesting, delicious, and easy to prep fruit we’ve come across. We have to give a shout out to our Auntie Katrina Del Mar who first introduced us to the exotic bounty and preparation methods for this juicy fruit.
We don’t see this species of prickly pear often—if ever here in Haliburton and Muskoka—but we found some this week in Bracebridge Food Basics!
(Optunia ficus-indica) is in fact a cactus, a.k.a. Tuna, and it’s an example of yet another prickly edible where the precious fruit is protected by spikes and thorns—so the plant needs to be treated with respect to get to the sweet flesh of the ‘pear’.
This ‘pear’ fruit is a complex fruit that is apparently difficult to describe,1 and has the water-filled sweetness of a watermelon, but holds dense, round, ‘bb’-sized seeds. Other species of Optunia are also edible coming in all shapes, sizes and flavours. The green cactus segments—or ‘pads’ a.k.a. Nopals or Nopales, —are edible too, and the O.ficusindica species of cactus can become invasive in ideal conditions, but we’re not going to dive into that rabbit hole.
How can you tell Prickly Pear are ripe? The fruit should hold quite a bit of red and pink, and even some purple, with a little green at the base. The real key is the callous on the bottom, which is the wound where the fruit was removed from the mother plant.
So, take a closer look at the callouses of the harvest offered to you and pick those with the flattest, best calloused bottoms with a hearty diameter. The flatter the callous, the riper the pear, easy as that!
So now your prickly pears are in your kitchen and you can’t wait to see what they taste like. Patience now—they’re prickly.
It is wise to prepare prickly pear with gloves. The fruit is covered in glochids; glassy barbed spines, that are hard to see and difficult to remove. Typical to cacti. They are on the most part, removed by the producer, but many of the tiniest wily spines are left behind—so the pear still needs to be approached with caution.
Next step is to select your ideal cacti fruit for the dish—the fattest-bottomed pears—and stick them in the fridge. Leave the deeper calloused specimens room temperature to ripen more.
After the chosen pears have chilled for a few hours you can get them ready to eat.
Cut off the ends of the fruit and proceed to carve a shallow groove around the length of the fruit. Peel off the outer flesh as it will go. The outer skin with the spine clusters is best left uneaten because you don’t want any glochids in your digestive tract. Don’t feel guilty because the potassium and phosphorous contained in the flesh are a nice addition to the compost.
When we eat prickly pear with our family, we just eat mouthfuls and swallow the seeds. It is because of this seed swallowing that one does not want to have a feast of prickly pear alone. Prickly pear is best eaten with other foods, or—as our prickly pear mentor and feisty card shark Madeira Mama Maria Faria tells us— “It will back you up”.
Prickly pear are a good source of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which in human digestion actually balance each other out. Interesting how our bods have figured out the plant nutrition stuff. We just have to swallow it. Enjoy!
We like to have nitrile gloves around the nursery but didn’t use them here for the photos. If you go ahead without gloves, like in this demo, there is a makeshift remedy that many of our peers may understand—as this is something we’d mess around with while bored in school—white craft glue fingerprinting. Seriously. Smear white craft glue over the area with the spines and thin it around and work it until it is clear and dry. Kind of fun! Once it is dry and clear, peel it off and hopefully the spines will come out. This technique works for most fine cacti spines.
May the forest be with you. R.