April 29, 2009

Adopting an orphaned cactus

A few weeks ago, while visiting Palm Springs, California, I came upon several pieces of prickly pear cactus just scattered about on the ground. There had been a recent storm in Palm Springs with very heavy winds and the cactus had been blown about. Very carefully, I packed up some spiny sections and brought the orphans home.

The prickly pear isn’t really a pear at all, but rather the fruit of several species of cactus, native to the hot regions of the Americas. Although the various species can differ in size and appearance, in general the prickly pear cactus is characterized by flat, fleshy, spiny pads stacked one on another. They can grow to a height of just a few inches, or up to six feet or more. In season, the cactus produces beautiful flowers that may be bright yellow (the most common color), red, or purple. The blooms eventually ripen into tasty, pear-shaped fruits, also referred to as tunas. Beneath a prickly skin, the flesh is orange or red and has a pleasant, sweet, melon-like flavor, which may be eaten on its own or added to fruit salads. The flavor is enhanced with a sprinkling of lemon or lime juice. Prickly pear also makes delicious jams, jellies, and even sorbets.

The fleshy, spiny pads of the cactus are also edible. Very popular in the Southwest and in Mexico, the pads, known as nopales, they have a flavor similar to green bell pepper. They’re stripped of their spines and peeled, then they’re cut into pieces and added to salads or cooked or pickled in various ways.
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