The Many Uses of the Prickly Pear

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Always wear gloves when harvesting prickly pear fruit.
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The flowers of the opuntia are not only beautiful, they lead to tasty fruit.
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Each opuntia flower lasts only a day.
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You can make jam, wine and pie from prickly pears.
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You can make prickly pear wine in a homemade system.

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think of cacti–those spiny denizens of the desert–as fruit-bearing plants. Bebe (Cactus Lady) Bruce says “Think again! Some cacti live a long way from the dry Southwest and bear luscious fruit that can be made into jelly, wine, and many other products … all of which have a definite market value!”

The opuntia–commonly called the prickly pear cactus–is perhaps the best-known and best-loved cactus in the world today. Best-known because it’s so widely distributed (you’ll find opuntias from California to Florida to Europe to the West Indies). Best-loved because of the bountiful yield of pulpy, red, deliciously tangy fruits–or “prickly pears”–this cactus produces every fall.

My own love affair with the opuntia began one afternoon as I was walking my dog down a dusty road outside the small, west-Texas town to which I’d recently moved. At one point, my canine friend stopped to sniff a ripe, crimson-colored, half-eaten (by a bird) fruit that had–apparently–fallen from a clump of cacti growing out of a rocky ledge above the road.

Like a true city bumpkin I picked up the partially devoured fruit, carried it home, showed it to my neighbor, and asked: “Isn’t this what folks use to make prickly pear jelly?”

“Yep! Sure is,” my friend replied. She then told me the name of an elderly lady in a nearby community who made the jelly and who could give me the recipe.

Thus began a prickly pear recipe collection that has since swollen to include jam, preserves, pie, wine, and a vitamin C-rich pear-juice “cooler,” among others. My “romance” with the prickly pear has turned out to be a long and–well– fruitful one.

Where to Find the Prickly Pear

“Indian figs,” as opuntias are sometimes called, are so widely distributed throughout the U.S. that–chances are–you’ll have little trouble locating some near where you live … if you know how to look for them.

The eastern prickly pear (Opuntia vulgaris) grows in rocky and sandy habitats–especially near the coast–from as far north as Massachusetts to the southernmost reaches of Florida, and in between. The ovoid pads of these cacti measure two to five inches in length, and the whole plant is seldom more than a couple feet tall. Likewise, the fruit is fairly tiny: only an inch to an inch and a half long.

In contrast, the western prickly pear–0. rafinesquii and other species–grows considerably larger (a height of ten feet is not uncommon) than O. vulgaris and produces one- to five-inch-long “pears” which are shaped somewhat like Old Spice after-shave bottles. These opuntias are found in rocky and sandy areas from the Mississippi Valley to Ohio and Michigan, west to British Columbia, south to (and beyond) the Mexican border, and eastward as far as Texas and Louisiana.

All opuntias bloom in the spring, at which time they’re covered by spectacular, waxy, yellow (sometimes red) flowers which usually disappear after only a day. In the fall, “pears” develop on the plant where blossoms occurred in the spring, and the fruit is ready for harvest from late September to–and through–October (and even into November, in some locales).

How to Harvest Prickly Pears

Rule Number One when foraging prickly pears is: Wear gloves or use tongs to remove the pears from the plants. Don’t go after the fruit barehanded, and for heaven’s sake don’t try to eat your pickin’s in the field! (The pears–true to their name–are covered with clusters of highly irritating bristles, making it easier than you think to wind up with sore hands–and sore gums!–at the end of the day.)

Mature prickly pears are tawny green to blackish purple, depending on the species. There’s only one sure way to tell if a fruit is ripe without tasting it, though … and that’s to pick it off the cactus and examine the pear’s damaged end (where it was torn from the parent plant). If the pulp is red at the rupture, you can be certain it’s ripe.

Juicing a Prickly Pear

To make prickly pear jelly–or prickly pear anything, for that matter–you’ve got to start with juice and/or pulp. Let’s talk about juice first.

Start with a quart of fresh-picked fruit and scrub the pears under running water with a vegetable brush (use tongs, unless want needles to come off in your hands). Place the clean intact fruits in a large stew pot, cover them with water and boil for half an hour … then crush the tender pears with a potato masher and strain the resulting pulp through a cloth-lined colander. (Leftover seeds, skins, and pulp be composted.) You should end up with about 2-1/2 of juice.

To prepare pulp only, simply [1] skin the fresh, uncooked pears, [2] slice each one in half lengthwise, and [3] scoop out–with a knife, spoon, or thumb–as many seeds can from the fleshy fruit halves before mashing them into pulp.

Now you’re ready to try your hand at “prickly pear cookery” … and to discover for yourself how tasty the little pear really is.

Prickly Pear Jelly

If you’re looking for a novel home business, you might want to consider making–and selling–prickly pear jelly. The sweet spread is already a popular novelty item in the Southwest, where a two-ounce jar commands as much as $1.00 at fruit stands, gift shops, grocery stores, county fairs, craft shows, etc.

Regardless of whether or not you set up your own “jelly works”, however, I think you’ll enjoy the distinctive flavor of this delightful red biscuit and toast topping.

1 cup of prickly pear juice
3 cups of sugar
1/3 cup of lemon juice
1/2 bottle (3 ounces) of liquid pectin

Combine the prickly pear juice, the sugar, and the lemon juice in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the liquid pectin and boil again for two to three minutes. (Note: Unless you’re a syrup freak, I don’t recommend using a powdered pectin–such as Sure-Jell–in this recipe.) Stir the liquid as it boils and be careful not to let it bubble over. Timing is critical here: The longer you let the juice mixture boil, the stiffer the jelly will be.

Finally, remove the pan from the heat, skim off any foam, pour the liquid into sterilized jars, and seal them with paraffin. Yield: 4 eight-ounce jars … or 16 two-ounce jars which can sell, as already noted, for $1.00 each.

Prickly Pear Preserves

4 cups of prickly pear pulp
3 cups of sugar
the juice–and grated rind–of two medium lemons

Combine all three ingredients in a large saucepan, place over low heat, and allow the combination to come to a boil. Simmer the mixture–stirring frequently–for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until thick and clear. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal.

Prickly Pear Pie No. 1

This luscious dessert looks something like cherry pie, but has a distinctive taste all its own. (And texture, too, if you don’t remove all the skins and seeds from the pulp!)

4 cups of prickly pear pulp
1-1 /4 cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of flour or cornstarch
1 nine-inch pie shell pie crust dough

Preheat the oven to 350°. Stir the pulp, sugar, and flour (or cornstarch) together thoroughly in a large mixing bowl, then pour the mixture into the pie shell and crisscross the shell with 1/2″-wide strips of pie crust dough. Bake at 350° until the pie’s cover is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.

Prickly Pear Pie No. 2

This recipe differs from the one above–and, in fact, from most pie recipes–in the kind of crust used.

3-1/2 cups of prickly pear pulp
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
1 stick of margarine or butter
1 cup of flour
1 cup of sugar (for crust)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of milk
1 teaspoon of vanilla

Place the pulp, cup of sugar, and water in a saucepan and boil (with stirring) until the sugar is completely dissolved … then remove from heat and set aside. (This will be the filling.)

To prepare the crust, begin by putting the margarine (or butter) in a large baking casserole and placing the casserole– in turn–in the oven as it preheats to 350°. Then, in a clean bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk, and vanilla together and pour the resulting mixture–which should have the consistency of pancake batter–into the hot casserole, atop the melted margarine (DO NOT STIR). Then–in the center of (and on top of) the crust mixture–pour the filling. (Here again, DO NOT STIR.)

Now slide the whole works into the 350° oven. During the baking period, the batter for the crust will actually rise over and completely cover the pie’s filling. (Don’t take my word for it … try it yourself!) The pie is done when the crust is completely brown.

Prickly Pear Wine

If you’re a wine aficionado, you may already have one of the many well-advertised wine making kits now on the market … in which case you can follow its directions, substituting prickly pear juice for grape “must.” (The kit should have a germicide for sterilizing glassware, yeast packages, a hydrometer for determining sugar concentrations, and just about anything else you’ll need–save a large crock or jug–to make your own prickly pear wine.)

If you don’t have any wine making equipment and you’ve never (purposely, at least) fermented anything in your life, you can still put up an acceptable batch of prickly pear vino using the recipe below.

2 gallons of prickly pear juice
4-1/2 cups of sugar
1 pack of yeast
1 jar of water

Start by rounding up [1] a large, clean glass jug with a tight-fitting cork or stopper, [2] a six-foot length of surgical tubing, and [3] some household cement. Then, using a sharp knife, ream a hole in the cork just large enough to accommodate the tubing … and insert the hose a short distance into the hole and glue it in place.

Next, heat the prickly pear juice almost to boiling in a large pot and dissolve the sugar in it. Afterwards, pour (or siphon) all but a cup of the steaming juice into the glass jug and allow it to cool until lukewarm, then dissolve the yeast in the remaining cup of liquid and add it to the fermentation vessel. Stopper the jug tightly–cementing the plug in place, if necessary to ensure an airtight seal–and run the free end of the surgical tubing into a jar of water, as shown in the accompanying diagram.

Now set the jug and jar in a cool place–60° to 70° F is fine–and wait. Within hours, bubbles will begin to appear in the jar of water, indicating that fermentation is taking place in the jug. The juice should continue to ferment (and bubbles appear in the jar) for the next three to six weeks, depending on the liquid’s temperature.

When bubbles have stopped coming out of the tubing, allow the jug to sit undisturbed one more week then [1] siphon the wine into a sterile container (being careful not to transfer sediment from the bottom of the fermentation vessel), [2] thoroughly wash the big glass jug, and [3] return the wine to it. (Stopper the vessel as before and–again–run the hose into a jar of water.)

After an additional week, siphon the wine into sterile recycled wine bottles, seal the bottles with corks (you can find the equipment you’ll need to do this at any wine making supply shop, or you can order materials online) and set the whole batch in a cool, dark place to age. Leave the young wine undisturbed for at least a month before sampling it . . . longer, if you can stand the suspense!

Prickly Pear Cooler

If alcohol isn’t your cup of tea, you’re sure to get a natural “high” from the pure, unfermented juice of the prickly pear. Try this: [1] Wash, skin, slice, and de-seed some ripe pears, [2] chop the remaining flesh into small pieces (there’s no need to cook them), [3] throw the chunks and slivers into the blender for a one- or two-minute whiz at high speed, and [4] serve on the rocks. (You may find it desirable to strain the nectar before drinking it, particularly if you think that any seeds are lurking in the red liquid.) If the beverage is too tangy for your taste, dilute it with a small amount of water.

Other Ideas

Prickly pears can be prepared in ways other than those I’ve mentioned. For instance, the fruit’s raw flesh is delicious when cut into small pieces and eaten like strawberries (with or without cream). Also, the tart little chunks make a supertasty “surprise ingredient” in fruit salads and gelatins. And they’re positively scrumptious when mixed with yogurt.

Even the fleshy pads of the mother plant can be cut into pieces and eaten raw, boiled, or pickled. (These chunks are called nopales and are eaten as a staple food by members of many Mexican and American Indian families.)

Cook up some prickly pear jelly–or preserves, or pie–and who knows? The scrubby, spine-studded opuntia just may become your favorite cactus, too! And, if you’re in the market for a little extra spending money, don’t overlook the possibility of selling a few of your creations. For fun and food–and profit!–I find that prickly pears are hard to beat. That’s why they call me the Cactus Lady!