Opuntia is a very large genus of cacti, native from Canada to South America, but now found also in other dry, desert terrains throughout the world. Their native American name is Nopal (or Nopales), but the common name is Prickly Pear. If you live in western North America or the Middle East, chances are very good you have access to Opuntia.
Opuntia are chock full of essential amino acids - 17 in all! High in B vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron, Nopal has long been used as a basic food by native American people. It also contains lots of insoluble fiber, which aids in digestion and keeps you regular. Currently, medical researchers are investigating the possibilities of using Opuntia to stabilize blood sugars in Type II diabetics.
On a personal note, I love the challenge of harvesting these fruit. The process is long and arduous and really, kind of annoying, with those little hairy glochids all over the place. But you can’t get fresh prickly pear juice otherwise, can you? And the juice is wonderful, as you will see from the recipes below. As I mentioned, Opuntias are also called Prickly Pears -- and rightfully so. Opuntias have small, thin barbed spines-barely visible to the human eye -- called glochids. Glochids are this plant's best protection. Even a small movement near the prickly paddle can result in sending the glochids through the air. They deposit themselves on your skin and are very irritating and difficult to remove. Be VERY CAREFUL when handling the fruit of this cactus! I find that wetting them down before beginning to harvest works best. AVOID harvesting on windy days!
How to Harvest The Fruit of the Opuntia
· Goggles, or at least sunglasses
· The LONGEST rubber gloves you can find (or similar)
· Long sleeves and long pants, socks and shoes (no sandals)
· Bandana - to cover your nose and mouth
· 2 buckets: one for the fruit you are harvesting, and another for the cleaned fruit
· A torch or BBQ or some other controllable form of heatfrom a flame (a small or culinary blow torch is perfect)
· Tongs for holding the fruit while heating
· Water supply
· Paper towel and tweezers to remove errant glochids
· Get suited up
· Wet down the Prickly Pear you are harvesting
· Using the tongs, remove the pear from the plant as carefully as possible. Place in bucket. Repeat until you have removed sufficient numbers of prickly pears for your projected needs. I usually take about 24-36 annually, and end up freezing the juice and pulp.
· Rinse pears under running water to remove as many glochids as possible. Air dry.
· Roast the pears. Hold pears, one at a time, over the open flame, and rotate them over the flame for even exposure. It’s OK if you char them a bit on the outside. In fact, I look for the glochids and try to burn them off first and then go about the business of finishing off the roasting. When pear becomes somewhat malleable (like a roasted pepper), it is done. Repeat til you finish roasting all the pears.
· Peel off the pear skins and reveal the beautiful, lush cranberry-magenta colored pear flesh beneath. Dispose of the pear skins carefully - glochids!
· I rinse my peeled pears quickly under running water to remove any escaping glochids then into the “clean” bucket for final processing.
Your clean fruit is now ready to be incorporated into lovely skin confections!
I recommend slicing or quartering the pears and allowing the red juice to run from them. This is best accomplished using a shallow glass, plastic or stainless steel pan. Place cut fruit in the pan and sprinkle with a .3 - .5% potassium sorbate or .5% methylparaben. Stir and cover. Allow to rest in the refrigerator overnight. You can freeze the juice and pulp, if you like, and use it later. Or separate the juice from the fruit using a sieve. Ice cube trays are wonderful for this, and then you will have small cubes of fruit and juice to melt, as you need them.