When most people think about cactus, they think of the desert Southwest. But there’s a cactus that grows over much of the United States and up into Canada. Prickly pear cactus is a great edible plant. The pads, known as nopales in Spanish, are great boiled, sautéed, or grilled.
But what we’re talking about in this recipe is the fruit, aka cactus pears. All prickly pear cacti bear fruit, but Southwestern varieties produce larger and more prolific tuna — the Spanish word for the fruit. The flesh of the tuna is sweet and can be eaten raw or cooked. The fruit does contain lots of seeds. They are edible but rock hard and not very pleasant to chew. If you are eating the fruits raw, just spit them out as you go. If you are using the fruits in a recipe, mash up the pulp and strain the seeds out through a screen or cheesecloth mesh.
Prime fruiting season runs from late summer through early winter. Fruits can range from green to bright magenta, depending on variety and location. Admittedly, the syrup made from the more purple fruit is much prettier, but even the ones with white or pale green flesh make a delicious product.
It’s important to remember that prickly pears are cacti, and that means they come with the standard cactus obstacles when it comes to harvesting. While the fruits have impressive spines, those aren’t the problem. The main issue with prickly pear fruits are the tiny little hairs, known as glochids, that burrow into your skin. Harvest the fruits while wearing a pair of heavy leather gloves and burn the glochids off with a torch or over an open flame. Once you have the glochids removed, you can get to the inner edible fruit. Use a sharp knife to remove the top and bottom of the fruit, then make a shallow cut lengthwise down one side. Peel off the tough outer skin to expose the sweet pulp. The larger the fruit, the easier it is to skin. If you find tuna at your favorite market, chances are good that the glochids have already been removed.
One of my favorite ways to use prickly pear fruit is in this syrup. It’s perfect in cocktails or lemonade, drizzled over French toast or pancakes for breakfast, or brushed on upland birds or wild turkey on the grill. We even drizzle it over ice cream for a fantastic dessert. One of the best things about the recipe is that you don’t need to skin the fruit — just slice in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon or small melon baller.
While sweet, the prickly pear juice by itself is a little bland, and I think it benefits from a little citrus to kick up the flavor. I add both the juice of a large orange and a teaspoon of powdered citric acid (available with the canning supplies at your local market) to add a bit of pep.
3 pounds prickly pear fruit
2 cups granulated white sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Juice of 1 large or 2 medium oranges
1 teaspoon powdered citric acid
Slice the fruits in half, lengthwise. Use a spoon or a melon baller to scoop the flesh out of the tougher skin. Add the pulp to a medium-sized pot.
Once all the fruit has been added, pour in enough water to just cover the fruit’s surface. Use a potato masher to smash the pulp. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let the fruit steep for 30 minutes.
Use the potato masher again to further break up the pulp. Strain the mixture by slowly pouring it into a cheesecloth-lined colander and pressing it through with the back of a wooden spoon to remove the seeds.
Make sure there are no seeds left stuck to the sides of the pot. Return the strained juice — there should be 3 to 4 cups — to the pot and place it over medium heat. Add the sugar, honey, and vanilla bean. Stir the mixture well as it comes to a light boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until the syrup starts to thicken. Add the orange juice and citric acid.
Taste the syrup to see if it needs more citric acid or sugar for balance. Once the flavor is perfect, turn off the heat and allow the syrup to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. The finished product will be rustic, with bits of prickly pear pulp and specks of vanilla bean. If you prefer your syrup a bit more refined, filter the finished product through multiple layers of cheesecloth before bottling.
Pour the syrup into bottles or jars and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
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