The cactus plant, Opuntia spp. , has two main culinary sources: nopales, or cactus pads, and prickly pears.
Nopales are cactus leaves, which are also known as pads, or paddles of the nopale, or prickly pear cactus. They are usually pale to dark green in color. They are oval in shape, and with sharp spines. The thorns on the nopale need to be removed. The easiest way to do it is to use a vegetable peeler. Nopales are best in the spring when they are small, but firm, and pale green with no wrinkling. They taste similar to a green bean with, with a slight acidic tang. Choose small leaves that are pale and thin.
Nopales are usually simmered in water until tender. Nopalitos are canned nopales that have been diced, or cut into strips. Acitrones are candied nopales that are packed in sugar syrup and available in cans or jars.
The prickly pear is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. They range in color from green to purplish red. It is pear like in shape and size, approximately 2 to 4 inches long.
Sometimes the prickly pear is known as the cactus pear, or Indian fig. In Israel, it is called Sharon’s fruit. In South Africa, it is called tuna, (yes- that's correct) and in Northern Africa, Christen fig.
The prickly pear has been consumed by Mexicans and Indians since ancient times. It has soft, porous flesh that is scattered with black seeds. The seeds are edible. The skin is a vibrant color, studded with thin, invisible spines that prick skin when touched. The prickly pear cactus also produces yellow flowers.
The prickly pear fruit usually comes with the large thorns snipped off by the packer- it is still advisable to wear gloves when preparing them though. The pores where the thorns were located sometimes will prick you with a very small miniscule thorn. The pears can be cut in half lengthwise, and the "meat" scooped out the shell with a spoon. The flesh is juicy and crunchy and mildly sweet. The flesh is similar in texture to an over-ripe Red Delicious Apple, or a slightly crunch melon, some pieces of the melon having more resistance than others. The juice of the red varieties will often stain surfaces, and your hands- another good reason wear gloves.
Prickly pears have a melon-like aroma, and a sweet- tart, but bland flavor. Ripen un-ripe fruit at room temperature. Prickly pear juice is found at health food stores or can be mail ordered. You can also find the juice in such confections such as syrups, juices, and candies, and mixed with honey. Its fuchsia color lends it to be added to many things. Prickly pears can be eaten “out of hand”, mixed into smoothies, or cut into salsas and fruit salads.
Prickly pears have magnesium, and potassium, vitamin C and sodium and have astringent properties.
Prickly Pear Margarita
1 oz. premium tequila
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
2 1/2 oz. puréed prickly pear cactus fruit, chilled
2 1/2 oz. sweet and sour
1/4 wedge of lime
1 cup ice cubes
Prepare margarita glass by rimming with lime juice and salt. Put ice into a shaker. Add tequila, Grand Marnier, fruit and sweet and sour. Shake vigorously and pour into prepared margarita glass. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.
© 2011 Chef Jennifer M. Denlinger All rights reserved
Cite me: Denlinger, J. (2011, May 5). The Fruits of the Cactus. Retrieved from: FloridaChef.net