Lovely, isn’t it? At our house we it call Paddle Cactus. Its true scientific name is Opuntia englemannii, but if it’s your friend you may call it Englemann’s Prickly Pear. It blooms in the spring and by August it has formed fat fruits which some deem delicious.
How to get from what you see above to something you might want to put in your mouth was the purpose of a delightful morning program recently at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden. Intrepid friend E and I went to learn and taste. The first thing to know is that there are Opuntia and there are Opuntia. There are 181 species in the genus, including the ubiquitous cholla cactus which looks nothing like its cousin above. The variety with round fat paddles is Englemann’s. There is a similar variety with elongated paddles and the appropriate and charming moniker of cow’s tongue cactus (it’s another englemannii, but with the variation subname ‘linguiformis’).
The harvesting problems are evident in the photo above. The paddles are equipped with daggers, and the fruit has nasty little hairy spikes that like nothing better than to insinuate themselves into your fingers or tongue and drive you mad. They are called glochids, and they can be a misery.
Luckily there are ways to deal with them, as we learned from our instructor at BTA. The first step in your prickly pear adventure is to pick a bunch of desert broom, a stiff brushy plant that is everywhere in the desert, frequently and courteously to be found right in the middle of the cactus whose fruit you wish to harvest.
Before picking the fruit, vigorously brush each globe with the desert broom. This will remove a great many of the glochids. Then, using tongs, carefully twist the fruit off the cactus and drop it in a bucket.
Once you have a full bucket find a nice gravelly or rough patch of ground. Be careful to choose a place where you will not later be walking barefoot (don’t do this in your garage!). Empty your bucket of fruit and rake it back and forth, around and through the gravel. This will pull off almost all any remaining glochids. Now you’re ready to make use of your fruit.
Eric and Terri of Tall Order Catering in Phoenix, along with several helpers, taught us how to peel the fruit for use in various recipes, as well as how to make juice for jelly, sangria or margaritas. They also peeled the paddles of the prickly pear and used them in various recipes. The name for this veg in Spanish is ‘nopales.’ In the picture below Eric and Terri are demonstrating that the juice of the prickly pear does not stain.
Eric is also demonstrating that you can shave the spines off the nopales with a sharp kitchen knife.
During the program Eric described how he had made the dishes that were so temptingly on display for us to look at, and afterwards, to eat. The internet is full of recipes, so if you care to try any of this yourself, you can begin your search here. Here are some of Eric’s delicious preparations:
The easiest way to extract juice from the prickly pear is to use a juicer. My cohort E just happens to have one, so after the program we went foraging to put the methods we had learned to practical use. A few cactus fruits make quite a bit of juice – it is a gorgeous color, as you can see. One thing we quickly learned is that the round Englemann’s makes a much tastier juice than the cow’s tongue.
The juice has some very beneficial side effects – Mayo Clinic explains: “Prickly pear cactus, also called nopales, is promoted for treating diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and hangovers. It is also touted for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.” Not all of these benefits have yet been proven.
What does it taste like? The closest I can come to explaining is to say the juice tastes both red and green, a bit like a fruit, a bit like a vegetable. It is a pleasant flavor. The paddles taste rather like green beans.
As you can see from the pictures of Eric’s food above, there is no end to the ways the paddles and fruits of the prickly pear can be enjoyed. Have some fun and experiment. I decided to make jelly with my share of the juice E and I made. After an afternoon in the kitchen I had 10 jars of over-sweet soup. I followed the directions for failed jelly and ended up with 9 jars of over-sweet soup. It all went down the drain. But I’m not discouraged – there will be more prickly pears next year, and I shall try again. Meanwhile, the paddles are always available at Food City.
Next time you encounter a prickly pear cactus, look beyond the daggers and spines and see all the good free food waiting for you!