The prickly pears (Opuntia) typically grow flat, rounded cladodes with two kinds of spines; large, smooth fixed spines, and small hairlike prickles called glochids, that easily penetrate the skin and detach from the plant. Also called the cactus pear, this unusual plant is egg or pear shaped, and 3 - 45 inches long.
The large spines are removed before shipping, but the skin is still full of small fibrous ones, many practically invisible so they must be handled with care. Depending on the variety and ripeness prickly pears may have green, yellow, orange, , pink, or crimson skins. The thirst quenching skin which ranges in color from green to yellow to red tastes something like watermelon, but without the sweetness.
Like all true cactus species, prickly pears are native to the Americas, but have been introduced to other parts of the globe. Prickly pears are found in abundance in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. The first introduction of prickly pears into Australia is ascribed to Governor Philip and the early colonists in 1788 when they were brought from Brazil to Sydney.
Historically the prickly pear has been an important source of water to inhabitants of arid and semi-arid regions all over the world. The cactus grows well without irrigation or pesticides and it grows everywhere in the Mediterranean countries, Asia, the U.S. and Central and South America. Mexico is the largest producer, consumer and exporter of the edible prickly pear.
Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the prickly pear pulp lowers levels of bad cholesterol while leaving good cholesterol unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit lower diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fiber that helps keep blood sugar stable. Prickly pear is also used for obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign hyperstatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infection.
Because the numerous tiny fibrous , nearly invisible spines can become embedded in your fingers, a good strategy is to use gloves. Peel a slice off the top and a slice off the bottom, then make a 1/8 inch deep cut from top to bottom. Use two forks to peel off the skin. Slice the fruit like a loaf of bread. It contains small edible seeds that in moderation are good for digestion. Discard any fruits that are dry inside.
Ripe prickly pears are best slightly chilled:
- They are usually eaten thinly sliced with a squeeze of lemon ore lime.
- They are a delicious garnish for chicken or shrimp salad.
- They make a good marmalade or sorbet when you strain out the seeds. .
- For breakfast cut into small chunks and mix with yogurt and sweeten with honey.
- For a drink peel 3 or 4 prickly pears and put in a blender with 1/2 cup orange juice, a squeeze of lemon, and a little honey
Cactus pears from Argentina and Brazil are available year round. Imports from Mexico come i9n between June and October. Late August to December is the peak season for prickly pears from California and Arizona.
Selecting and Storing:
Always choose firm unblemished fruit. Moldy spots are usually an indication of flesh that is too so0ft and unappetizing. Very firm prickly pears can be ripened at home. Let them sit out at room temperature until they have a good uniform color and just a little give. At that point refrigerate them right away.
So..... Eat up! Enjoy! I'll show you how.
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