Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ubiquitous Prickly Pear Cactus

The Prickly Pear Cactus is the state plant of Texas, and it’s little wonder why. It is found nearly everywhere throughout the state. It is a relatively small cactus, covered with very sharp spines. We, in fact, have many growing on our property here in the hill country. While stumbling into the plant wearing sandals is not a pleasant experience, eating it certainly is.

The Prickly Pear Cactus is native to the American Southwest and Mexico, and has been part of the the diet of people living in the area throughout history. Before moving to Texas, I never imagined that people ate cactus, but I have to tell you, it’s surprisingly good.

The Prickly Pear Cactus is comprised of a couple of parts. The pad is the large flattened portion of the plant and is referred to as “Nopales.” The fruit is referred to as “Tuna.”

Even if you have this spiny plant growing in abundance on your land, it is advantageous to purchase the cactus you wish to consume. Removing the spines is a tedious and time consuming task, and certainly not worth the time or effort, especially when a single fruit of the cactus, completely cleaned of the spines can be purchased for twenty cents in a local hill country store.

The fruit, or Tuna, with the spines removed, is easily prepared for consumption. Simply cut off both ends of the fruit, split the fruit lengthwise, and peel the outer skin off. The remaining portion consists of a sweet and juicy, seed-filled interior with the flavor of a melon. The small seeds are swallowed or chewed by some folks, but probably should be spit out as you would do with watermelon seeds. Various products are derived from the fruit, including jelly, syrup, and candy.

The pad, with a flavor similar to green beans, can be prepared in a variety of ways, often, but not always cooked.

The common Prickly Pear Cactus is interesting to look at, always troublesome to handle, but surely provides an interesting addition to hill country foods.

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