But cacti want to be our friends. Once you get past their thorny exteriors, you find a soft, fleshy, and usually delicious heart. The succulent agave plant gives us tequila, and nightblooming Hylocereus cacti bear pitayas (which we know as dragonfruit). Even the stereotypical cactus of the cartoon world, the saguaro, produces an edible fruit. And then there's my personal favorite, the prickly pear.
Both the pads and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus are edible. The pads, called nopales or nopalitos, can be found canned in hispanic markets and in well-stocked grocery stores, or fresh at a good farmer's market. They're crunchy and slightly sticky (similar to okra), and taste fresh and green - like green beans, asparagus, and green pepper. They're great on pizza.
But we're here for the fruits.
The fruits can very in color and flavor depending on the cultivar of cactus they're harvested from. In my area (the southeastern US), I typically see red fruits, which have a delicate melon-like flavor with a texture similar to that of a kiwi. If I was to describe the flavor more quantitatively, I could cite studies which show the main odor-active compounds are similar to those found in cucumbers and melons. Unlike many fruits, they have a fairly low pH, meaning that you get the sweet without too much of the tart.
"So," I can hear you thinking, "what is it about these fruits that would justify me poking around a cactus?" I'm glad you asked!
Prickly pear fruits are rich in vitamin C, and colored by betacyanins, both of which are powerful antioxidants. They are a good source of fiber, and are high in calcium and magnesium.
Also, they're delicious.
Step 1: Pick your Pears
This can be significantly easier than you might think. When I was a teenager living in Colorado, my friends and I would come across wild prickly pear cacti, bearing tiny fruits about the size of a super ball. Like many wild fruits (ever tried wild strawberries? They will BLOW YOUR MIND) the flavor is concentrated and intense, but it's completely impractical to collect enough to make anything with them.
Nowadays, I live in the muggy southeast instead of the arid southwest, and prickly pear cacti are weirdly easy to find. Around here (and, apparently, in much of the US), prickly pear cacti are a common landscaping plant. As summer wanes into fall, these enormous cacti (sometimes standing 5-6 feet tall) will become covered in yellow flowers, which will turn into plum-sized fruits.
To pick the fruits, grip them with the tongs, and gently twist the fruits off the cactus.
Why tongs, you ask? Well, do you see those little fuzzy spots on the fruit? The ones that look like they might be soft as a newborn baby's hair? Those are called glochids, and they are really bundles of hundreds of tiny fiberglass-like spines. While you're busy worrying about the long, scary spines on the pads of the cactus (known as "nopales," they are also edible!), the little hairy spines will detach and embed themselves into your skin. It's likely that you won't notice that this has happened until you brush the protruding end of one of these evil little spines into something, and it feels like you are having a tiny hole drilled into your skin. By a laser. A laser that is ON FIRE.
These spines can be dislodged from the fruit really easily - be very sure that you stand with your back to the wind while you pick these, as I cannot even imagine how horrible it would be to end up with a glochid in the eye.
If the fruit "gives" a little, and twists off easily, it's probably ripe. I'll be honest here: I have no idea when prickly pear fruit season is. I've read it's supposed to be in the late fall, but I collected these fruits in late November (they were delicious). So, late fall to early winter?
Put your fruits into a paper bag or other impenetrable container. Plastic bags will not stop the glochids from sticking you.