Arizona is known as the Grand Canyon state and is our first visit to America’s South West - land of red rocks, desert sands, and cactus. I have never been to Arizona, but from what I hear, cactus are as common as pine trees are in Georgia, so it’s not surprising that one particular type of cactus has found it’s way into the kitchen - the Prickly Pear.
To my knowledge, you can’t cook with pine cones, but the industrious people of the South West and Arizona, have found several ways to use the fruits abundantly produced by the Opuntia Cactus - better known as the Prickly Pear Cactus.
One Versatile "Pear"
Before we get to the edible application, I thought you might be interested to know some other interesting uses for the “fruit” of this cactus:
❉ medicinal treatments (rich in Vitamin C, calcium and potassium)
❉ as an intoxicant in Mexican culture
❉ dye production (just ask my cutting board about this)
❉ as an additive in plaster or stucco!
And you said this is edible?!
Hard to believe after reading that, but yes - the Prickly Pear is safe to eat! Not in the traditional way you would pick up an apple or banana and eat it, but after some prep work, you can in fact use Prickly Pear in food.
One of my dear friends spends several months each year in Arizona, and she said it is very common to see Prickly Pear Margaritas and Lemonades as well as Prickly Pear candies and jelly.
Let’s make Preserves!
Once I discovered that I could purchase Prickly Pear all the way over here on the east coast, I decided it would be fun to make Prickly Pear Preserves!
You may have seen Prickly Pear in your grocery store produce department and wondered “what in the world is that odd looking thing?”
The external spines (prickles?) have been removed from the pears before they get to the produce department but a tough outer skin still needs to be removed before they can be used. Simply blanch the pears to get the skin off.
Once the skin is removed, you can see the beautiful fuchsia flesh and understand how this could be utilized in dye production.
12 Prickly Pears
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp orange juice
1/4 of an orange, diced small
1/2 package of pectin
Getting your Prickly Pears Preserve Ready (say that 10 times fast)
Once you have removed the skin from the Prickly Pears, there is still some work to do before they are ready to be preserved. The recipe I used said “cut the pears in half, scoop out the seeds and put seeds to the side.” In my mind, I was picturing something similar to a papaya or cantaloupe and thought I would simply scoop out the seeds and have a nice piece of flesh ready to cut up. Not so my friends!
Instead, the seeds are in fact dispersed throughout a rather large center core with only a small, thin layer of seed free flesh.
I found the easiest way to remove the seeds was to put the core (on the right in the picture above) into the food processor, puree it and then put the juice through a sieve to strain out the seeds.
Once you have your Prickly Pear puree and pieces of fruit, you’re ready to cook the preserves.
❉ Place Prickly Pear pieces, water and sugar in a saucepan
❉ Add prickly pear puree, citrus juices and orange pieces to saucepan and stir to combine
❉ Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer uncovered, for about 40 minutes or until the preserves has thickened and the liquid has reduced
❉ If you want a very firm set, add the pectin to the preserves, but the preserves will set nicely without it
❉ Pour into sterilized jars and seal
How does it taste?
Prickly Pear has a unique taste, but if I were to describe it I would say it tastes like a combination of watermelon, strawberries and blackberries. I decided to make preserves instead of jelly because I prefer having texture and larger pieces of fruit and the prickly pear softened nicely during cooking.
Notes & Disclaimer
This was my first time making homemade preserves, and my preserves did not set up as firm as I had expected. In my next venture - Prickly Pear or other fruit, I think I will use the recipe included with the pectin to see if it gives a firmer final product.
The original recipe also called for 24 Prickly Pears. Since Prickly Pear are not growing freely where I live, and were $2 a piece at A&P, I decided to cut the recipe in half.
I’m glad that I was able to learn more about the Prickly Pear and experience cooking with cactus fruit!
Well, that completes all of the “A” states! Up next - California!