Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: Beneath their prickly exterior lies a technicolored treat.
Another addition to the collection of Who first figured out this was edible? produce, cactus pears are the fruit of -- wait for it -- a cactus. Shocker, right? Specifically the nopal cactus, and yes, that’s where nopales come from too. The fruit (also called prickly pears or tunas) can come in a wide range of colors, although you’re probably most likely to come across fruits with a reddish-purple or reddish-brown exterior (2, below) and vibrant magenta flesh (1, below) that's sweet and reminiscent of watermelon.
Unless you're out picking these yourself, the fruits' large spines will have been removed -- but they still need to be handled with care, due to the presence of small hairs called glocides. They're almost invisible, but should you choose to handle the fruits carelessly, they will make themselves known. (This is not the kind of poke that makes you giggle. Trust us.) We found it easiest to simply cradle the fruits in a tea towel (4, below), slice them in half, and then scoop out the flesh with a spoon (3, below).
Alternatively, skin them by slicing off the top and bottom of the fruit, make a shallow cut down the length of the fruit, and then peel away the skin. If you don’t want to risk staining your favorite tea towel, your other options are to wear gloves, torch the fruits briefly to burn off the glocides, or soak the fruits in water and then brush away the spines with a (new) toothbrush or kitchen brush.
More: There's no need to fear produce with built-in armor -- here's how to prep cardoons.
Depending on the variety, the fruits ripen from early spring into late fall; select firm fruits that are uniformly colored and free from bruises or moldy patches. If they are more rock-hard than firm, let them ripen on the counter for a day or two. Once ripe, they'll keep well in the refrigerator for about a week or so.
The flesh is studded with small edible seeds -- whether or not you’ll actually want to eat them is another matter: Hank Shaw says “it’s like eating a wood chip.” We say a mouthful of pebbles -- tomato, tomahto -- either way, our preference is to extract the juice. Blend the flesh in a food processor or blender, and then strain it like so.
The juice can be used as is -- mix it into lemonade; make jelly, sorbet, or ice cream; use it to flavor frosting -- or reduce the it into a syrup to use in cocktails, as a glaze for meat, or in a vinaigrette. If you don't mind the seeds, add chunks of the flesh to a fruit salad, or use firm green cactus pears in a pico de gallo, as author/illustrator Marcella Kriebel does in Comida Latina. And if you stumble across prickly pear extract, it can be used to prevent a hangover: The catch is remembering to take it prior to a wild night out (or just stick with our DIY hangover cures).
What are your favorite ways to use cactus pears? Are we crazy? Do you enjoy the crunchy seeds? Tell us in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom