Processing prickly pears

Prickly pear season is here, and my husband got a big bunch very cheaply, from someone who picked them off the hedge on his property. When he came home with the loot, I foolishly forgot that the prickly pear is – well, prickly – and carelessly grabbed one. I had a quick, painful reminder of the fact that the prickly pear, actually the fruit of the opuntia cactus, is full of tiny fiberglass-like spines called glochids, which very easily get embedded in the skin and are very difficult to dislodge. Soaking my hand in warm water helped get most of them out, though, and I carefully proceeded to look for a pain-free way of utilizing this unusual fruit.

Rule number one: don’t touch the skin of the prickly pear with your bare hands. Wear thick gloves or, as I did, use tongs. 

pricklypeartongs

While holding the prickly pear down with tongs, use a knife to cut off the edges (“top” and “bottom”) of the fruit. Then cut several slits, length-wise, in the skin and pry it off with the tip of the knife. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly wash your peeled prickly pear under a running tap, to make sure any glochids that might have stuck to the fruit are washed away. You don’t want them in your tongue!

At this point you can eat the prickly pears fresh, or juice them. To make juice, I first mashed the fruit with a potato masher, then strained the whole mess. The juice is great as part of cold beverages, and can also be made into syrup or jelly. The remaining seeds, mash and peels make a great treat for chickens (or, if you don’t have chickens, they can be composted).

mashpricklypears

Mashing the prickly pears

I do have to say, though, that the whole process is somewhat labor-intensive: a whole lot of fruit gives comparatively little juice. Since the season of the prickly pear is short, it’s alright as a once-a-year project, but I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis.

pricklypearjuice

Above: prickly pear juice, for a refreshing cold drink or for making syrup or jelly. I love its bright orange color. 

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