Last week I spent some time in Arizona visiting my family while taking some time to get rebalanced and find my center again. Going home is always good for that, right? And what better way to do that than in the enchanting desert full of radiant sunsets, captivating monsoon storms and the intense, relentless heat. It’s kinda like a week-long session of hot yoga.
It has been a while since I’ve experimented and worked with plants and herbs. It seems that the drama has been all-consuming lately, just trying to get back on my feet and function has taken up all of my energy for the last few months. The plants have taken a bit of a backseat while I work through all of this, but I know they are patiently, and maybe even eagerly, awaiting my return.
My mom has been making jelly from the prickly pear cactus fruits for many years. It is always a hit, especially as gifts and such during the holidays. I don’t eat much sugar in my diet and I’ve seen how much white sugar goes into this stuff so I have always wanted to find other ways to enjoy the fruit in a fun and creative way.
With a bit of inspiration from Mom, I decided to experiment with a Prickly Pear ice cream. Of course, if you know me, its going to be a dairy-free, organic, low sugar and raw vegan version!
First, a little more about these delicious cactus… Prickly pear, also known as Indian fig opuntia, Barbary fig, cactus pear, Opuntia ficus-indica are well adapted to dry and arid environments. The flavor of the O. ficus-indica is known to have a similar sweet taste to that of a watermelon which translates to its excellent use in jams and jellies. Indigenous people have been using this cactus as a food and other functional uses for centuries but it also has medicinal properties as well. Recent studies have found that the fruits and flesh of the O. ficus-indica have significant amounts of vitamin C and substantial anti-oxidant properties. One study determined that the vitamin C obtained from the cactus fruit decreased damage to lipids while simultaneously improving antioxidant effects and the body’s redox balance (1), compared to vitamin C supplements which do not decrease the body’s oxidative stress. In other words, you’re better off getting your vitamins from whole foods than popping a multi-vitamin. Although further studies are needed, it was also found that the Arizona cactus pear exhibited anti-cancer properties and prohibited cancer cell growth (2).
Now, on to the exciting and delicious part…Begin by harvesting your fruits using kitchen tongs or other suitable tools, carefully avoiding the spines. Here’s my mom and oldest daughter getting to work in the front yard.
First things first though, how can you possibly get past those maddening, nearly invisible spines known as glochids? One way is to hold them over a flame such as a campfire or a gas stove burner. In my case last week, however, my dad decided that a huge gas torch from the garage would do the job best. It certainly removed the spines nicely! Nevertheless, I’m sure any sort of flame would be just fine. 🙂
Once the glochids are thoroughly burned off, you can now handle these once offensive fruits much easier. (Though, I won’t promise that there will not be a stray glochid that will lodge itself in your skin and irritate you for hours, its just the risk we take for delicious wild food!) Slice them open and you’ll find a mass of rock hard seeds. These must be separated or you’ll likely chip a tooth trying to eat them, although they are edible if you were to grind them to a powder. Scoop out the flesh and seeds and place into a blender or food processor. Blend for about a minute then separate the seeds by pouring through a fine mesh strainer.
Now you have your prickly pear juice ready for your recipe! I know there are many other ways to process these cactus fruits, but I am a strong advocate for minimally processing whole foods and consuming them in their raw and natural state. So many nutrients are lost during the heating and cooking process so I prefer not to do so whenever possible. More on that in another post!
Prickly Pear Raw Vegan Ice Cream
1.5 cups prickly pear juice (see processing tips above)
1 cup unsweetened coconut yogurt
2 cups cashews (soaked for 1-2 hours, preferably)1/4-1/3 cup coconut nectar or honey (or for sugar free, I like to use stevia extract)
dash of salt
Combine all ingredients into a high speed blender, such as a Vitamix. Be sure to taste-test it at this point and adjust the sweetness according to your preference. Though, keeping in mind that once frozen, it won’t taste quite as sweet as it does at this point. Place into a commercial ice cream maker and follow the manufacturers directions. Alternatively, it can be placed in the freezer for a few hours, but won’t have the same texture and fluffiness of ice cream.
I had rave reviews from everyone who tried it. I feel like the flavor was lost a little, but it sure presented beautifully with its bright color. Besides, who can turn down a good healthy dose of vitamin C and antioxidants with their ice cream?
(1) Tesoriere T, Butera D, Pintaudi AM, Allegra M, Livrea MA. Supplementation with cactus pear fruit decreases antioxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;80(2):391–395.
(2) Zou D, Brewer M, Garcia F, et al. Cactus pear: a natural product in cancer chemoprevention. Nutrition Journal. 2005;4:25. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-4-25.