A lesson on harvesting and cooking prickly pear fruit from the Prickly Pear and Mesquite Festival at Superstition Mountain Museum
The prickly pear cactus is prevalent in the American southwest deserts and was a common food source for American Indians. The prickly pear has three edible sections: the pad of the cactus, the petals of the flowers and the pear or fruit.
At the Prickly Pear/Mesquite Festival at Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, Arizona, Jean Groen gave a cooking lecture, where I learned about the harvesting, preparation and cooking of the prickly pear fruit.
The prickly pear blossoms in brilliant colours – yellow, orange, red, fuchsia. Winter weather conditions influence the timing of spring blooming, but it is typically April or late March when the blooms begin in central Arizona. When the blossoms die off, a bulbous magenta-coloured fruit is left behind. The fruit can be cut into slices and eaten raw, or used to make jam, jelly, syrup, nectar, sorbet, wine, and candy.
Prickly pear is high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids. There is some evidence that it can help control blood sugar levels.
When is the prickly pear fruit ready to harvest? Jean says she watches the birds, bees and bugs. When they start eating the fruit it’s ready. That typically occurs in late July with harvesting season lasting to around Labour Day. After that the fruit becomes bitter.
Harvesting the fruit requires caution. It has tiny barbed spines called glochids. The glochids can severely irritate your skin. Long tongs are generally used to twist off the fruit. The prickly pear fruit can be used fresh or frozen for later use.
Before the fruit can be used, the glochids need to be removed. You may see recommendations to burn them off with a blowtorch or barbecue them. Jean doesn’t do that, saying that method would be too time-consuming for the amount of fruit she processes. She soaks the fruit in water and bleach (1 to 2 tablespoons of bleach to 5 gallons of water) and vigorously swirls them around with a brush. They stay in the bleach water for only a few minutes, after which they are thoroughly hosed down.
Jean shared the proportions of ingredients she uses in making her prickly pear jelly:
2 and a half cups prickly pear syrup
1 package pectin
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 and a half cups sugar
half a teaspoon citric acid
She adds citric acid to help the jelly set. When asked whether she sealed her jam with paraffin, she said she didn’t. She uses the water bath canning method to seal her jam.
Although harvesting and cooking prickly pear fruit might be an interesting challenge, I think I will take the easy way out and purchase the prepared products.
If you decide to try cooking with prickly pear, consider Jean’s caution before heading into the desert to harvest. Cacti are protected plants. You are allowed to twist off the ripe fruit with tongs, but you are not allowed to cut the paddles.
Have you cooked with prickly pear?