Cacti are generally considered to be hostile, unfriendly plants. Which, frankly, is understandable. They're covered with spines, they grow in hostile, arid climates. Even the adjectives used to describe them are unpleasant.
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
Step one: find a fruiting cactus. Bring tongs.
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.
Step 2: Pulling Prickers From Your Poor Phalanges.
My personal review of this method? It's quite effective. If you don't have white glue and gauze, duct tape will do in a pinch.
The most effective single method was tweezing, which removed 76% of the spines. The method using a thin layer of household glue (Elmer's Glue-All, Borden Inc) covered with gauze, allowed to dry (about 30 minutes) and then peeled off resulted in removal of 63% of the spines.
Step 3: DePrickle the Prickly Pear's Pokey Pads
Let's say you get home, and manage not to have all of the spines embedded in your hands. It's entirely possible to cut up and prepare the fruit without doing away with the glochids, but, frankly, it's worth the extra time it takes to remove them.
How? The same way we solve any problem: with fire.
Use a blowtorch to lovingly caress the surface of the fruits with a cleansing flame. The thin, reedy glochids will be incinerated much faster than it takes for the skin of the fruit to char or scorch. One fringe benefit of this method is that the heat from the flame makes the skin of the fruit glossy and brings out its vibrant red color.
Rinse the fruits off, and get ready to chop!
Step 4: Pith and Pulp the Prickly Pears
In my experience, the best way to get the goods out of the fruit is to chop them in half and use a spoon to scoop out the guts. This works well if your goal is to have prickly pear puree, which you can freeze to add to smoothies, or to use in candy (more on that later).
Make sure to wear an apron for this step. The prickly pear fruit contains high amounts of antioxidant pigments (betacyanins), which also occur in other notorious stain-producers, like beets. This will stain your hands a violent pink, but it will wash off. Eventually.
Step 5: Puree and Purify the Prickly Pear Pulp
Pop the guts of the fruit into a blender. Puree.
There will be a substantial amount of seeds in the puree, so as a final step, press it through a sieve.
I put most of this puree directly into ice cube trays so that I could save it for later.
When you clean the dishes, be sure to enjoy the comically pink color of the rinse water. For extra fun, puree the skins of the cacti with extra water, and use this extract to color something pink.
Step 6: A Practical Purpose for Prepared Prickly Pear Puree
This puree can be used in anything you'd like to lend its unique flavor and startling color to, with one caveat: prickly pears contain proteinases, much like pineapple and papaya. If you want to make a prickly pear product with gelatin, you'll need to boil the puree briefly to destroy these gelatin-consuming enzymes.
I made prickly pear pate de fruit, which is a fancy french term for "fruit paste." Pate de fruit can be pretty frustrating sometimes, especially when you're working with an unusual fruit. Pectin, the gelling agent in pate de fruit, is maddeningly sensitive to pH, sugar content, the presence of ions, and the concentration of pectin in the fruits themselves. I have made three batches of this, and only one has been of a consistency that is satisfactory for candies. Fortunately, prickly pear jelly is just as delicious as prickly pear candy, if a little bit more difficult to eat.
I used the same process as I did in the strawberry balsamic turtle truffles, substituting 250 grams prickly pear puree and 250 grams apple compote for the pureed strawberries. If you want to add a little class to them, you can also add about a quarter teaspoon of lemon zest to the cooking syrup.