Prickly pears are the fruit that forms in round to oval shapes from the pads of the cactus plant. It is popular in the Southwestern areas of the US, Mexico and considered a weed in Australia. This fruit also goes by the name of ‘tuna’ in Mexico, or Indian figs (coming from part of the scientific name Opuntia ficus indica).
The color of the prickly pear fruit is a strikingly rich magenta color, but can be found in golds and fuchsia colors as well. Prickly pears are a great fruit to add to both sweet and savory dishes, and its flavor can be described between a melon and a fig, with highlights of kiwi fruit or strawberry, depending on the individual fruit and plant.
Because of the unique flavor profile, prickly pears give wonderful highlights to fruit dishes, desserts and to entree salads, and brings great color to vinaigrettes and sauces. But the prickly pears are not just pretty to look at. They are loaded with antioxidants and dietary fiber, and have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Nutritional Information for the Prickly Pear Fruit
Prickly pears are high in potassium, magnesium and calcium and are an excellent source of Vitamin C. They also contain beta carotene. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one fruit (minus the seeds and skins) has 42 calories, around 9 grams carbohydrates and 3.7 g of dietary fiber.
Picking Prickly Pears and Removing the Spines
Prickly pears, while having a beautiful magenta to dark fuchsia coloring, also have spines surrounding it. The cactus that bears the fruit may be protected in certain areas, but if you are fortunate enough to have one of these growing in your backyard, they are a great treat to use instead of leaving them for the birds. Most of the ones available for sale in markets and stores will already have the spines conveniently removed for the consumer.
If picking them by hand, use tongs to grasp the fruit while cutting it from the cactus, or use heavy gloves. The spines are very spiky and very fine, and difficult to find and remove once imbedded in a finger or a thumb. Once you’ve brought them home two popular ways to remove the spines are to drop in cold, running water or use a kitchen hand torch just quickly enough to burn away the spines. If deciding to rub them off, use a very thick toweling to rub them off.
Using the Fruit in Recipes
The prickly pear fruit has hard seeds that although are edible, are quite hard. The best way to use the fruit is to smash and strain the fruit thus collecting its puree through a strainer. Peel, chop and place in the bowl of a fine mesh strainer, and using a ladle or kitchen spatula press on the fruit to extract as much juice and puree that can be pressed out.
There are many benefits of using prickly pears in culinary applications. These fruits not only give a pretty base coloring for many recipes, but also can provide additional nutrients to the overall dish being prepared.