Know Your Ingredients: Prickly Pears

Prickly Pears Are A Southwestern Specialty

Dan Pennington
4 min read
Watch Your Fingers
Seriously. Those are riddled with invisible needles. (mali maeder)
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Anyone who lives in New Mexico will tell you that the food out here just can’t be replicated out of state. Not quite traditional Mexican food, New Mexicans managed to find a way to add a little extra something and make it uniquely our own. Ultimately we have the best ingredients. Is that unfair to say when I clearly haven’t tried all the ingredients in the world? No question, but when it comes to originality and innovation, we tend to go the extra mile. Take for example the prickly pear fruit, which grows on opuntia cacti.

This hardy plant is capable of surviving and even thriving in extreme conditions, in some cases. It did so well in Australia that it caused a real issue as it began overtaking everything, growing and subsuming land at roughly one million acres a year, while growing up to 20 feet tall. They tend to do well in any habitat you throw them in, even places like the Galápagos, where they became full-on trees due to turtles on the island wiping out low-growing variants. Tough and hardy, these cacti run the gamut of environments in which they can survive.

Show of hands, how many of you picked a prickly pear as a kid (or drunk adult) and found it shockingly prickly? If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky, as the tiny prickly needles on the surface (aka glochids) are the worst things in the world to get out of your fingertips. Peeling the skin carefully exposes the actual edible part and gets rid of these miniscule needles. You could alternatively just burn them off, if you’re feeling in the mood for a little campfire cookout.

Now you have a safe-to-eat cacti fruit. What do you do with it? It turns out that like most ingredients, you’re pretty much limited by your own creativity. With their vibrant color (typically bright red) and unique flavor (similar to watermelon), the first place your mind goes to would probably be as an addition to salad. Using it as a replacement in a standard watermelon salad helps to infuse a bit more local culture and oomph into the dish; plus it’s way easier to use a couple prickly pears sliced up than it is to deal with a whole watermelon.

Conversely, some have even gone and made jams out of it, which adds a whole new experience to your morning toast. Speaking of toasts, prickly pear juice is also a favorite to use in mimosas, especially at Slate Street Café. Speaking with Matthew Wolfson, a manager at Slate and the genius behind many of their unique mimosa offerings, he told me that he loves using prickly pear because “it’s got a vibrant flavor that can come off on the sour side. I like to mix it with bit of pomegranate to give it a little depth.”

In fact, Slate is known for their adventurous runs at interesting dishes that rotate through their specials. Wolfson also mentioned, “It does very well as a reduction as well, using it as you might a balsamic, thick and tart, perfect for a sturdy kale or frisée salad. The pros of prickly pear are that it’s versatile and beautifully colored, but the cons are that it will need sweetening.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, it even has some useful medicinal benefits. Not only is it just a great, lightweight snack but it’s also high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids. There is even some evidence that it can decrease blood sugar levels for those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, which means it could be useful after a night of heavy drinking.

Now it’s time to let your inner creative culinary artist shine. Don’t be afraid to work with and try new things in cooking, even if the idea initially starts off feeling pretty foreign. Progress in the world of food has never come from people being afraid to take risks. So get out there, grab some prickly pears and help start the next big food revolution. Just remember to wear gloves. Those needles seriously hurt.
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