A prickly pear, also known as cactus pear or tuna fruit, has large, fleshy pads. It is an ingredient in a variety of recipes, including marmalades, jellies, and dessert sauces. The pads, fruits, and seeds of this cactus are edible, but the rind is not.
Prickly pears have flattened oval or round stems with spines, which may be long and thick or short and fine. Members of the Opuntia genus, these plants grow in North American deserts as well as other parts of the world. This cactus grows in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico in well-drained soil. An extremely cold-tolerant form of cactus, it can also be found in Canada.
This cactus has yellow, red, or purple blooms and ranges in height from 1 foot (.3 m) to 6-7 feet (1.8-2.1 m). In addition to normal cactus spines, they have additional, finely barbed spines called glochids.
Use the fruit of the prickly pear for jellies, preserves, pickles, and salsas. Combine banana, honey, wine vinegar, lemon and lime juice with the fruit for a vinaigrette. To make a tropical fruit salad, peel and slice the prickly pear and combine with honeydew, guava, pineapple and other fruits. Unsalted butter, prickly pear cactus fruit, honey, and cilantro create a flavored butter. The fruit is also used in pies and dried as a snack food.
The cactus stems, called nopales, are fried or grilled, similar to other vegetables. Use the pads in scrambled egg dishes and salads. Nopalitos refers to the pads once they are cut and prepared.
When selecting a prickly pear, avoid those that are soft or have dark, soft spots. The fruit is generally ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Use leather or rubber gloves or long handled tongs to pick the fruit from the cactus. Ripen at room temperature.
Be careful to remove all spines when using a prickly pear in cooking. To remove the glochids, use a knife to cut them off or peel the skin. Other methods for removing the glochids include passing the fruit through an open flame or shaking it in a bag of hot coals.
The pads and fruits of this plant are useful in stabilizing blood sugar because they are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fiber. Because prickly pear cactus contains significant amounts of vitamins B1 and B6, it is also sold in capsule form as a supplement. Research is ongoing to determine whether cactus is helpful in controlling cholesterol, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, skin problems, and even viral infections.