Wildly Sweet & Savory: The Prickly Pear

(Originally published in Edible Ojai & Ventura County, Summer 2022)

The most commonly eaten cactus worldwide is the prickly pear (all Opuntia species are edible, though some are tastier than others) and is both a fruit and a vegetable. This cactus is widely abundant though they prefer arid regions like Southern California. Because of this plant’s popularity, they are enjoyed and cultivated worldwide but are also found growing abundantly in the wild . You may even have some already growing in your own backyard or in your neighborhood (be sure to ask permission if they are growing on property you don’t own). Some folks are turned off by the cactus’ characteristic “slime.” While there are ways to combat this to make it a more texturally appealing meal, keep in mind that this is where all of the beneficial components are found and heat will degrade them.

Health Benefits: There are plenty of reasons to go to all the trouble to harvest such a hostile plant. This cactus is hailed for its excellent and well-researched health improving qualities such as antioxidants and high vitamin and mineral content such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. The green pads contain compounds that fight inflammation, high cholesterol, obesity and even combat hangovers—so don’t feel too guilty making the Prickly Pear Margarita recipe below. They also contain about 90% water.

How to Harvest: Using leather gloves, a bucket and metal tongs, collect new-growth pads that are about the size of your palm. Beware that even though the young pads will lack the larger and more obvious thorns, they still have tiny hair-like spines called glochids that are difficult to see and are very irritating once they’re in your skin. Use the tongs to grab and twist the pad off of the supporting segment. If they do not separate easily, the pads are likely too mature to eat. Once in the kitchen, carefully scrape the spines off each side and trim along the outer edge. Carefully rinse the pad and it is ready to use in your recipe.

Prickly pear fruits are similar in their harvest. Collect them with tongs and using gloves, slice off each end and peel the fruit. The left over skins can be dehydrated and powdered. To make juice, place the fruits into a fruit press and strain the resulting juice with a very fine mesh sieve or coffee filter.

See recipes below.

Prickly Pear Margarita:

Salt & prickly pear fruit powder mixture*
1 1/2 oz tequila or mezcal
1 oz triple sec
1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz prickly pear syrup**

*Prickly pear fruit powder can be made easily by dehydrating and powdering left over skins and pulp of the prickly pear fruit after juicing.

  • Purchase or make your own prickly pear syrup by combining 1 cup of juice to 1 cup of sugar and simmering just until the sugar is combined with the juice.

Wet the rim of the glass by running a lime wedge around the edge. Sprinkle the salt and prickly pear fruit powder on a flat surface and rotate the rim of the glass in the mixture so that the rim is lightly coated. Add ice cubes to the glass.
Combine the tequila, triple sec, lime juice and prickly pear syrup in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to combine thoroughly then strain into glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

Succulent Salad with Creamy Cilantro Lime and Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette

Serves 2

Salad Ingredients:
2 prickly pear pad (nopal)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup purslane leaves
1/4 cup diced red onion
1 cup chopped kale or other wild greens
1/2 cup sliced grape tomatoes
1/4 cup shredded jicama
Cilantro Lime Cream see recipe below
Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette see recipe below

To prepare the prickly pear leaf, see above How to Harvest, then dice into small bite sized pieces and toss with two teaspoons of salt and let rest for 10 minutes in a bowl. Rinse thoroughly and drain in a colander.

Combine rinsed prickly pear with remaining ingredients and drizzle with Cilantro Lime Cream and Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette and serve immediately. Raw prickly pear does not store well and should be consumed the same day it is prepared.

Cilantro Lime Cream

1 avocado
1/2 bunch cilantro
2 cloves garlic
Zest of 1 lime and juice
1/4 cup water
Salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender and adjust flavors to your preference.

Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette

1/2 cup hemp seed or cashew
1 shallot, peeled and diced  
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced  
1 lime, juiced  
1/4 cup prickly pear juice
1 tablespoon agave nectar  
6 tablespoons olive oil  
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender and adjust flavors to your preference.

Join me in the spring to learn about foraging cacti and all the best and tastiest Sonoran desert foods with The Wild Path School. Visit TheWildPath.org for more details and registration.

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