Also called the cactus pear, this unusual fruit is egg or pear shaped, three to four inches long, and covered with sharp spines. The large spines are removed before shipping, but the skin is still full of smaller, fibrous ones - many of them practically invisible - so prickly pears must be handles with great care. In the old days, before shippers removed the spines, kids used to put on heavy gloves, take the prickly pears outside, and scrape the skins on the sidewalk to remove the large spines.
Depending on the variety and ripeness, prickly pears may have green, yellow, orange, pink, or crimson skins. The thirst-quenching flesh, which ranges in color from green to yellow to red, tastes something like watermelon, but without the sweetness. You may have passed up these exotic-looking fruits at the market, but the prickly pear is an unusually refreshing, juicy fruit that can be prepared in a number of ways. It's well worth trying.
Historically, the prickly pear has been an important source of water to inhabitants of arid and semiarid regions all over the world. Native Americans in the Southwest have long used its juice to help bring down fevers. The cactus grows well without irrigation or pesticides, and it grows everywhere- -in Mediterranean countries, Asia, the United States, and Central and South America. Mexico, however, remains the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of the edible prickly pear.
We get two main varieties on the market. Italian imports and those that are grown in California and Mexico. The Italian varieties tend to be greenish yellow to yellow, sometimes with a red blush, and have a yellow flesh. Those from Mexico and California have red flesh and a red skin that's often nearly maroon. Prickly pears from different parts of the world come in a range of colors, but I don't think there's a noticeable difference in the flavor or texture of any variety.
Cactus pears from Argentina and Brazil are available year round. Imports from Mexico come in between June and October. Late August to December is the peak season for prickly pears from California and Arizona. These are marketed under the Andy-Boy label and are the top of the line in freshness and ripeness. Prickly pears from the Mediterranean are available in late autumn, and those from Chile from February to April.
Always choose a firm, unblemished fruit. Moldy spots are usually an indication of flesh that's too soft and unappetizing. Very firm prickly pears can be ripened at home.
Ripening and Storing
The hundreds of tiny, fibrous, nearly invisible spines in the skin of a prickly pear are very hard to get out of your skin once they become embedded in your fingers. Hold the prickly pear by the ends, or better yet, wear protective gloves. To peel, cut a slice off the top and the bottom, then make a skin-deep slash (about one-eighth of an inch) lengthwise down the fruit. Using a couple of forks to start, peel back the skin from the cut, it will come off easily. Then slice the flesh like a loaf of bread. It contains small edible seeds that are excellent for the digestion when eaten in moderation, although many people find them a bit hard and discard them. Discard any fruits that are dry inside.
Ripe prickly pears taste best slightly chilled. They're usually eaten thinly sliced with a squeeze of lemon or lime to enhance the flavor. They're a delicious garnish for chicken or shrimp salad, and they make very good marmalade or sorbet (strain out the seeds for these dishes). Prickly pears make a healthful breakfast when cut into small chunks, mixed with plain yogurt, and sweetened with a little honey.
Prickly pears also make a terrific drink. Peel three or four prickly pears, cut into chunks, and put in the blender with half a cup of orange juice, a squeeze of lemon, and a little honey. Puree the mix until it's smooth, then strain out the seeds and chill or pour over crushed ice. It's delicious as is and also makes a good cocktail mix for tequila or vodka.
Cactus Pear Muffins
Other recipes from Produce Pete.