What the Heck Is a Cactus Pear?
One of the many unusual fruit varieties that’s begun popping up in grocery stores around the country in recent years is the cactus pear, also known as the prickly pear, cactus fig, or tuna fruit. These strange-looking fruits are, true to their name, the annual edible growth of the prickly pear cactus, native primarily to the southwestern United States and Mexico.
The flavor of a cactus pear is sweet, but somewhat bland, like a melon. Despite the name, the fruit is not actually a member of the pear family. It was simply named that because the prickly fruit resembles a pear in size and shape. The pads of the prickly pear cactus, called nopales, are also edible, but are not commonly available outside of their native region. Unlike the fruit, nopales are not sweet, but are tart and crisp.
Cactus pears come in a range of colors, from lime green through yellow, orange, and beet red. The colors are a natural variation, and do not indicate maturity. They are covered in rough bumps, called glochids, bearing many tiny, sharp spines.
To eat a cactus pear, it is important to first remove the spines. If picking your own, be sure to wear thick gloves when removing the glochids. One traditional method for removing them is to roast them off in an open flame, such as a campfire. You can also use something abrasive to brush them off, or just cut them off with a knife.
If you’re buying a cactus pear from the store, the spines should have already been removed, but you’ll still want to remove the tough outer skin. Using a sharp knife, slice off both ends of the cactus pear and discard them. Next, cut a long vertical slice along the length of the body of the cactus pear. Take hold of a corner of the thick skin and carefully peel it back, away from the flesh of the fruit. If this proves too difficult, simply slip your knife under the skin and cut it away.
The fruit contains many small seeds, which are edible, though many people choose not to eat them. If you don’t mind the seeds, it can be a wonderful treat to just slice into a cactus pear and enjoy it raw. The sweet juice also makes a great addition to beverages, such as lemonade or mojitos, and can be made into jelly, sorbet, or any number of other sweet treats. Here are some recipes to help you get to know this curious fruit:
Cactus Pear Juice
Cactus pears (about two for every cup of juice desired)
Lemon or lime juice to taste
Carefully peel away the skins and cut the fruit into small cubes. Place it in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Push the blended fruit through a sieve to capture the seeds and any remaining thick pulp. Add lemon or lime juice to taste, or add to lemonade in place of sugar.
Cactus Pear Sorbet
4 cups cactus pear juice
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice
First, make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar melts. Set it aside to cool. Once the simple syrup has cooled, combine it with the cactus pear juice and lemon juice.
If you have an ice cream maker, spoon the mixture into it and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you do not have an ice cream maker, place the mixture in a tall sealing container and freeze it for about 90 minutes. Remove it and stir the sorbet with a whisk. Return it to the freezer and stir once every hour for about four hours. This will incorporate air into the mixture, making it light and creamy.
Cactus Pear Salad
1 cactus pear
1 bell pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel the cactus pear and slice it into 1/4” cubes. Halve the avocado, and remove the pit and peel. Slice both halves into 1/4” cubes. Slice the bell pepper in half and remove the core, stem, and seeds. Slice it into several thin strips, and halve the strips. Toss the pepper strips with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add cactus pear and avocado cubes and and toss briefly, until just mixed.