If there’s one thing I’ve learned definitively about harvesting and processing the bright magenta fruit of the prickly pear cactus, it’s that everyone pretty much does it their own way. Last week, we went over to Paul’s grandmother’s house and she put us to work on her prickly pears and gave me crash course on her process.
First, you pick. The most important advice about harvesting prickly pear fruit is: use tongs! There’s a reason they’re called prickly pears. You really don’t want to touch the small, fine, but painful clusters of mini splintery spikes called glochids. Ripe prickly pears are deep magenta (there are other colors too) and detach easily with a slight twist and pull of the tongs.
From the folks at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, I learned that you can pick a few branches of the plant called Desert Broom and use it to gently brush off some of the glochids before harvest. Where we are it is an invasive species, so I feel comfortable picking a bit, using it in my harvest, then discarding it.
After harvest is spike removal part two. We put them in a sink filled with water, stirred them around, then let them sit for a while. The combination of the water and the fruits hitting up against one another helps dislodge the glochids. They don’t need to be perfectly de-spined because we’re going to be straining the juice later. Other methods of mass spike removal that I’ve heard of include:
- raking the fruits around on clean, level concrete, then washing
- burning off the glochids (this works great for small quantities of fruit when you won’t be juicing it, such as an infusion)
- shaking the fruits in a large jar or container with sand and gravel, then washing
Just to be safe, we then use tongs and paring knives to quarter the prickly pears lengthwise. We put them in a large pot and added just enough water to cover them, brought the whole thing to a boil, a reduced it to simmer 20 minutes. Then, we strained the juice through a clean kitchen towel to remove the seeds and skin, then refrigerated it. At this point, you can freeze the juice for future use or further process it into jelly, syrup, ice cream, margaritas, and other delicious things. (PS: I’ll have some prickly pear treats up for you on the blog this week.)
To keep the juice raw, I have also seen folks run the de-spined fruit straight through the juicer. Depending on the quality of your juicer, there’s likely to still be some pulp in the resulting juice, so I strain the juiced prickly pear a second time through a clean towel for a nice clear, result.
If you’ve used or heard of other methods, please leave them in the comments!