I have a friend in town from New York and he usually joins me on my morning travels through our magical valley. He has little interest in plant identification, all he wants to know is, “what can I eat”. His favorite trail snacks are a mouthful of yerba santa leaves or a hunk of fennel. This year he was in luck as our local prickly pear was getting ripe, I admit I was even a bit tempted.
Prickly pear is a generic term for the fruit of one dozens of cacti species that grow from Puerto Rico to Texas to Mexico and throughout Eurpoe. Our local species is Opuntia littoralis, coastal prickly pear. The genus “Opuntia” is as old as Pliny, used to describe a plant that grew near the town of Opus in Greece. Littoralis of course means relating to the shoreline. It blooms here most of the spring and summer and the fruits ripen fall into winter.
I can’t emphasize enough how nasty these little buggers are to handle. In addition to the large inch-long spines, those tiny dark patches covering the fruit are a minefield of microscopic spines which will eternally adhere themselves to clothing, fingers, lips, or anything else that it has the pleasure of coming into contact with.
We of course forgot our entire “prickly pear collecting kit” in the truck, so we made do with some paper bags.
Go for the deepest red fruits you can find. The less effort it takes to remove them from the cactus, the riper they will be.
Native Americans would usually knock these off of the plant with a sturdy stick, then roll them along the dust until all the spines were dislodged. That just wasn’t going to do for our purposes. Bruce ended up with a nice bunch of spines in his lip, my t-shirt was covered after carefully gathering a dozen.
Lots of advice on the interwebs regarding cleaning and preparing the prickly pears. Some suggest holding the fruit over an open flame to singe off the spines. Mrs. Rambler ignored all that rot and grabbed a pair of tongs and a sharp knife.
One swift length-wise slice and a sturdy tablespoon made quick work of these. The work surface was covered in something that could be easily and quickly discarded, aluminum foil in our case.
Some recipes call for a blender followed by a strainer, there are literally dozens of naughty little seeds which should be discarded (or not, they aren’t poisonous, just annoying).
Much easier if you own a juicer. The dozen prickly pears yielded two cups of deep red/orange flesh which was sweet but not obnoxiously so.
So what to do with our prickly pear juice? We tried a soft drink mixed with some seltzer and it was delightfully refreshing.
For the adults out there we tried them with rum, tequila and vodka (not at the same time silly.) We preferred the rum as the two flavors played nicely off of eachother.
Anyone have the patience to make a prickly pear margarita?