Prickly pear fruits were the first wild food I ever gathered. I was a youngster, about 10 or 11 years old, and my parents were Midwestern transplants to northern Arizona. One beautiful autumn day they took the family exploring in our Jeep on a cactus quest. We used tongs to pick the stickery cactus fruits, licking the sweet juice off our fingers when the fruit was punctured.
For me, the fragrance of those sun-warmed prickly pear fruits has become the defining memory of fall. It also sent me on a lifelong quest for edible wild plants.
Native populations throughout the Southwest and Mexico have relied on prickly pear for millennia for food and medicine. Prickly pear fruit are low in calories — about 12 calories each — and high in vitamins A and C as well as other antioxidants and flavonoids.
They also contain calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The unsweetened juice has proven helpful in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar, helping athletes with endurance, and even preventing a hangover.
For decades prickly pears were used by the Anglo population only as a jelly ingredient. Sometime in the early 1990s, with the arrival of a new interest in Southwest flavors, top chefs began looking at the juice as an interesting novelty, including it on their menus as a sauce or drink ingredient.
The flavor depends on the variety and varies from plant to plant. Some compare it to watermelon or honeydew melon. Others suggest the flavor is berry-like or similar to cucumbers. Most fruits have slightly musky flavor notes unlike anything I’ve tasted elsewhere. It is truly the flavor of the Southwest.
Carolyn Niethammer ’66 ’80 is the author of The Prickly Pear Cookbook (Rio Nuevo Press) and Cooking the Wild Southwest (University of Arizona Press), both of which offer many recipes for prickly pear fruits.
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How to Use Prickly Pear Fruits
If you’d like to try gathering prickly pear yourself, it’s easy. Prickly pears ripen in late July through September and some late-ripening plants have fruit into October. Harvest from your own yard or a neighbor’s (ask first, of course). You also can gather on Bureau of Land Management land, but you must get a $7 permit from the Arizona State Land Department to harvest prickly pears on state land.
To set out on your harvesting trip, you’ll need tongs, a bucket, and some good quality rubber gloves. And tweezers. At some point, you are going to get a stray pricker in your finger. It will happen. Use the tweezers. Take it out. Get on with the job.
When you begin harvesting from a plant, cut one fruit open to check it before you harvest a bucketful. Sometimes a fruit will look deep red and ripe from the outside, but the inside will still be green. A dozen prickly pears will give you about a cup of juice.
At home, start by washing the fruit. If you will be using the fresh juice right away, simply quarter the fruit and put them in your blender. No need to remove the stickers. They will be caught by the strainer later. To prepare juice for making syrup or jelly, place as many fruit as you wish to process in a pot. Cover them with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about five minutes before transferring to the blender.
Add a little water to the fresh or simmered fruits to get the process going and blend until liquefied — long enough to get the skins pulverized so all their nutrients are in the juice. Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and strain. If your strainer has large holes, you’ll need to line it with cheesecloth or a piece of an old sheet.
Use the juice immediately in drinks or other recipes, freeze it, or make it into syrup. If you want the juice to be more concentrated, put it back in the pot and simmer for a while until it reaches the desired strength. Some greenish froth will rise to the top — just skim it off.
Making Prickly Pear Syrup
To make syrup, combine 1 cup of prickly pear juice, the juice of one lemon, and 1 ½ cups of sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. (Experiment if you want to use other sweeteners, such as agave syrup.) Slowly bring to a simmer and cook until it begins to thicken. If you want a thicker syrup, stir in 1 teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in a little cold water and cook to thicken. Stir with a wire whisk if necessary to get a smooth consistency. The syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks and in the freezer for a year.
Use your juice or syrup on pancakes or ice cream or to flavor lemonade or mixed drinks. It is also delicious as an ingredient in sauces for meats.