Introduction: Make Prickly Pear Juice (Nopal, Nopales, Oputina, Tuna)

Recently we moved to Tucson AZ, and I was struck by seeing how Prickly Pears grow all over town.  Many people grow them as ornamentals in their yard; also they can be found growing wild along roadsides, in vacant lots, and in rural areas.  Traditionally, the Mexicans and Native Americans of this area use several parts of this plant. The green pads are used as a vegetalbe and herbal remedy. The  fruits may be eaten fresh, or cooked.   Or, as we'll show here, they may be crushed and strained, and the resulting juice used as is, or to make syrups, jellies, beverages, etc. 

In this presentation we started with a large bowlful of fruits (bowl capacity 1 1/2 gallons) and finished up with 5 pints of juice.  It went straight to the freezer, except for one pint for immediate use, because it's hiighly perishable in its natural raw state.  Some people go on to make syrup, jelly, etc, which is not so perishable, but the immediate end product of this instructible needs to be refrigerated or frozen.

CAUTION:  if you use this juice as is, be careful, because each tablespoon of juice contains the essence of several fruits.  This fruit has been shown to lower blood pressure and blood sugar.  So use this juice sparingly, about a tablespoon at a time at first, especially if your blood pressure and blood sugar are already ok.

I learned to do this from a presentation by a young Native woman at the local Farmer's Market. I've asked around my Native and Mexican neighbors and found that the method she showed us, with variations, is pretty standard around here among the old timers. However, each family and region may have slightly different ways.

Prickly Pears have been a traditional part of the diet of Native and Mexican people of the region for thousands of years.  Recently, scientists are discovering that they're good to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and may prevent all sorts of modern diseases.  In fact,  it's become a "superfood" fad, with a 16 ounce bottle of the juice (similar to what we're making in this instructable but probably diluted and cooked and maybe with preservatives) going for around 20 to 50 dollars at health food stores or on the multi level market.  So if you're fortunate enough to live in a place where prickly pear grows, you can get the pure raw natural product for free, for just a few hours of natural healthy work. The resulting juice may be used as is, or as a base for other products / projects.

One thing that surprised me was that the fruits may be prepared skin and all!  There's no need to remove the thorns / glochids prior to mashing / grinding because straining through several successive meshes takes care of all the thorns, even the tiny hairlike glochids which can cause the most misery.

Nowadays people use cooking tongs to harvest the fruits, a blender to crush the fruit to get at the juice, and several grades of mesh or cloth to filter and make sure all the thorns and glochids are out.  However in ancient times, or in remote areas where modern conveniences are not available, the fruits may be harvested using tradtional tongs carved of native wood (eg, mesquite, segauro ribs, etc), crushed using various hand implements, then strained using whatever appropriate materials are locally available.

In addition, the young green pads can be eaten like a vegetable, and some people peel the fruits and eat them as is, seeds and all.  We won't go into that here, as there are other instructables about this, and eating small hard seeds like this may lead to digestive difficulties in some people.  Here, we're just talking about making the juice.

For this instructable we're focusing on the fruit of the Prickly pear cactus.  However, there are other varieties of cactus that grow around here, seguaro, charro, etc.  They have edible fruits also, which may be prepared in a similar manner.

Step 1: Stuff You Need

A large clean bowl or bucket for carrying the fruits.

We use tongs to harvest the fruits, and a sturdy plastic bowl to carry them home.  The bowl shown here, an old plastic salad bowl, holds about 1 1/2 gallons.  From 1 1/2 gallons of fruit we were able to make about 5 pints of finished juice. 

Then when we get home we'll need the following items:

Water (if you're in the city it's handy to have a hose from a tap, and to do this outside, as it all gets messy.)

Several plastic containers of various shapes and sizes including some with lids for storing the finished juice in the freezer.  For this purpose we use BPA free plastic.

A blender if you've got access to power.  Otherwise you can mash the fruits with a potato masher, hand grinder, or whatever you have.

A wire mesh strainer for the first straining and a collander to get more juice out of the mash after it's strained,

Several pieces of clean food-grade cloth of varying weaves, loose and tight.  We used an old sleeveless T-shirt,  a piece of pillowcase, and a kitchen towel.  Also you'll need rubber bands for securing the cloth over the plastic containers to make the strainer.

Afterward, you'll want glue and/or tweezers to get the thorns / glochids out of your hands.  No matter how careful you are, you'll get some. 

The glouchids are especially irritating and hard to remove.  It's easier to remove them before you wash your hands, as washing your hands may cause them to break off at the skin level  If this happens, sometimes it helps to coat the area with glue, let it dry, then pull carefully with the grain.  Duct tape also works sometimes. 

If  you're in a remote area without access to modern conveniences, use sap from the pinon or mesquite, it will work like glue.  If you can't get the glouchids out, don't worry; just cover the spot with glue, tape, or sap to prevent further irritation / infection.  Eventually your skin will work them out, the same way as it works out certain kinds of piercings.

We also included a pic of our two dogs, because they're good watchdogs and good companions and we love them.  However, you don't really need dogs to do this, and if you have them, don't let them get into the juice.  It has some very powerful effects on one's blood pressure and blood sugar, and small dogs like this could easily take too much.  There's veteneray herbalists here in town, I'll check around and find out the safe dose for dogs, which probably depends on body weight, and post this info if I can find it.

Step 2: Harvest

We find a good stand of prickly pears and go at it. Grasp the fruit with the tongs, give a gentle twist and pull, and if it's ripe or near ripe, it will come off.  Drop it in the bowl or bucket.

If it's on someone's property, we ask the person first.  Also, we first make an offering of water, Reiki energy, corn meal, tobacco, coin, beads, Miracle-Gro, or whatever we have on hand.  We don't pick them all, leaving some for the next person and for the critters.  We don't pick them up off the ground.  Groundfallen fruits may contain molds that are harmful to the delicate human nervous system, and wild critters who lack hands and tools may depend on fallen fruits for survival. 

There are many varieties of prickly pear that grow around here, some have tufts of larger spines, others have tiny sparse glouchids.  Some have large pads, others small.  There are some that have been bred to have large fruits and large juicy pads; the ones around here in people's yards look just like the ones growing wild in the outlying desert.  These different varieties may come ripe at slightly different times, and may have different tastes and textures.  All are good.  In fact, the fruits of most cactus species that grow around here are good to eat, and can be prepared by this same method.

Sometimes fruits may have aphids on them, which look like white flaky stuff.  This is ok though a bit squicky.  The aphids won't hurt you, and they will rinse off.  In fact, the aphids indicate that the fruits are high in sugar, and very tasty.  However, if  there's enough aphid-free fruits available, we prefer those, because we don't like killing things that we don't plan to eat and that's not hurting us.  Also there's the ick factor.  An earlier batch we picked had a lot of aphids, but the batch we're showing here is mostly clean.

When our local varieties of prickly pears are ripe, they are red all the way to the base, sometimes slightly wrinkled, and they give a bit of red juice at the base when picked. (Some varieties in other locations are yellow or green when ripe but the ones here are red.)   It's ok to pick them a little before full ripeness, but they taste better if fully ripe.  If picked when there's still a bit of green at the base, they'll be higher in pectin (which is a good thing) but they won't be as sweet, abd may have a bit of a soapy taste, which some people don't like.

It took us about 20 minutes to fill the bowl.  We left the rest, as we can store and  use only so much.

Step 3: Mash / Grind

When we get the fruits home, we wash them by spraying them with the garden hose.  This removes some of the glouchids, as well as any aphids or dirt that may be on them.  Some people say that if you wash them a few times it will get rid of all the glouchids but we have not found this to be true. If you're in a rural place and don't have running water just pour some on from a bucket if you have any, or otherwise just skip this.  A few bugs and a little dirt probably won't hurt you, and if you're in a remote area without water handy, you probably have other more urgent things on your mind.

Next, we put them in the blender, a few at a time, adding a little water or juice from the previous batch to get it started.  Start blending on low speed then work up to high.   If you're in a remote area and don't have power or a blender you could probably use a potato masher or hand grinder, whatever you have.

I was always taught to clean up as I go, taking a moment between each step to keep my work area and all tools / utensils clean.  Some people let this go,  blazing straight through then cleaning up at the end.  Either way you do it, it's good to work outside, and keep things clean. Splattering juice attracts bugs, and bugs belong outside.  Since we're in the city, it's easy enough to hose each tool / utensil down as we're done with it  

Step 4: The First Straining

Next we pour the mashed fruit into a large diameter screen strainer.  This seems to be about right to get out most of the seeds and thorns.  Some people use burlap or a mat of plant material for this step  It goes slowly, and there seems to be a lot of good stuff left in the leavings.  So we put that in a collander and let it drip over night into a large plastic container, and get more juice that way. Sometimes we even transfer it to a kitchen towel and squeeze it out, but if doing this it's important to protect one's hands. 

This, and the juice from the first straining, then go into the next straining, of medium weave cloth.

Step 5: The Second Straining

We take the juice that's been strained through the wire mesh strainer, and strain it again by pouring through cloth from an old sleeveless t-shirt.  This is a medium weave cloth that's about right for removing most of the rest of the glouchids. Some people use a bandanna or a piece of old calico cloth for the second straining.

I've saved the residue from this step and examined it.  It's a very fine slurry, looks good enough to eat, but please don't; it contains many very small bits of thorn and glouchids. So we just add it to the stuff in the collander, to drip overnight and make more juice we can filter and finish later.

Step 6: The Third Straining

For good measure, we strain it one more time through a piece of fine-weave cloth.  We use a clean piece from an old pillowcase, 200 weave.  This leaves just a tiny bit of residue, which we add to the collander.  Some people skip this step, straining it only twice, but we really don't want to ingest glochids.  Most people's disgestive systems can handle it at this point, but if you have any plant allergies or immuno deficiencies you'll want to be especially careful.

Step 7: The Finished Juice

The final result has been strained three times, and it has a gorgeous clear magenta color.  The taste is something like a mixture of berries, melons, and cucumbers, and it's very strong.  At this point we simply put it in the freezer, and put about a tablespoon or so in our breakfast smoothies.  Some of our neighbors process this juice further, they cook it and make sauces. jellies, preserves, candies, syrups, salsas, etc.  Maybe next year we'll try something like that, or maybe a fruit leather.

Next morning, we take the liquid that's dripped from the collader, and put it through the three filtrations then add it to the finished juice.  I've even put a few plastic bags over my hands and put the contents of the collander into a thick kitchen towel and squeezed it out to get out every bit of the goodness, but that's not a move for the faint of heart, glochids you know.  The remainding pulp has lost quite a bit of color and volume, and it goes back to the earth, to the dump or the compost pile, unless someone can find a use for it with all the the glochids, seeds, and cellulose.  (Prickly pear doesn't grow well from seeds, it mostly reproduces by budding.)

Prickly Pears have been a traditional part of the diet of Native and Mexican people of the region for thousands of years.  Recently scientists are discovering that they're good to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and may prevent all sorts of modern diseases.  My Native and Mexican neighbors tell me that they use this or similar methods to prepare the juice.  Meanwhile, it's become the latest health food fad, with a 16 ounce bottle of the juice similar to what we've just made going for around 50 dollars.  So if you're fortunate enough to live in a place where prickly pear grows, you can get the pure natural product for free, for just a few hours of natural healthy work

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