|Throughout the week, I continued to spot cacti here and there, laden with fruit. Some of the fruit was ripe, some was not yet ripe. For the varieties that produce magenta fruit, the tunas are ripe when they are fully magenta and they can be easily twisted or plucked off the cactus with a pair of metal tongs.
Today, with the kids in my car, I decided it was time to go help myself. I selected a bunch of cacti on what appeared to be no man's land by the side of the road. Depending on where you live, there might be permitting issues with this. Arizona in particular won't let you harvest cacti or tunas on public land or roadsides and it's a good bet that you shouldn't take plants from private property anywhere. But here were a bunch of fruits that no one else is eating, just sitting there. I'll take my chances.
I had hoped the kids would be as excited as I was about this rare and delicious foraged treat. But they were not. They sat in the car, bored, and watched me out the window as I trekked up a steep hill. For most of the way, I was walking through thick brush. By the end, my shorts were filthy, and my legs were cut up. (But at least I didn't have any cactus pricklies in me!!)
I helped myself to the fruits that I could grab, using my metal tongs. I decided to collect the tunas in a paper grocery bag because the tiny, nearly invisible prickles on them hurt like hell if you touch them, and I don't really want those getting stuck in my re-usable cloth bags.
I took a few of the younger pads home to eat as well. When you remove one pad from a prickly pear, it responds by growing two new pads in the same spot. And it's the new, young pads that you want to eat. All in all, it's a nice arrangement. A plant that responds to supply and demand. You demand food by removing a pad, it supplies you with two more!
Prior to my little expedition, I looked up what I could about harvesting and eating prickly pears. One good piece of advice: don't put them on a wooden cutting board, because the prickles will get stuck in the cutting board. One site said you shouldn't even put the prickles in your compost because you could end up getting them stuck in your hand down the road when you reach in the compost.
Some recommend putting whole tunas in your blender and then straining the juice through a cloth or a T-shirt. The juice STAINS so you're going to end up with a bright pink cloth if you go that route. And I'm not really a fan of the idea of having a bunch of cactus stickers stuck on a cloth or a T-shirt.
Plan B was searing off the spikes over an open flame. That's what I did. It worked like magic. It also set off the smoke detector, so maybe open your windows or turn a fan on before doing this. (A less smoky way to get the spikes off is to roll the fruit in the dirt... but then you'll have a fruit covered in dirt. Although if you plan to peel it and eat the flesh inside, that's not a problem.)
With the spikes (big visible ones, and tiny invisible ones) all gone, I put the fruits into my blender and then strained it through a cheesecloth. The resulting pulp was a bit slimy, a little lumpy, and contained a few seeds. But it's also delicious, so I can be forgiving of those flaws. If I was serving it to guests, I might be a little pickier about things. Once you've got the juice, you can use it in smoothies, jams, candy, salad dressings, sauces, etc. It's not hard to find recipes online for anything you want to make. I have various ideas for prickly pear and apple cobbler, or prickly pear-orange marmalade.
You can also just peel the fruit and eat it whole, but you'll be dealing with a ton of large, hard seeds. I like tunas enough that I just put up with the seeds and eat them along with the delicious flesh.
For the cactus pads (nopales in Spanish), typically, you don't eat the parts where the spikes were, even once you've burnt the spikes off. I tried removing these little bits with a knife - I think a sharp paring knife would work but I don't have one. So I ended up just removing the skin altogether. Nopales are known for being slimy. I've heard them described as "slimy green beans." But slimy or not, they are extremely healthy.
If you start cutting up some nopales and you notice the pad is tough and fibrous, it probably won't be good eating. I saw that a little bit of the pad I ate for dinner tonight was pretty fibrous, so I put that part in the compost and ate the rest. I stir-fried it with some salt and avocado oil and ate it with refried beans and corn tortillas. YUM!
The other good use for prickly pear cactus pads is medicinal (although as a food they are so healthy they are borderline medicinal even then - they are supposed to help with diabetes). The inside of prickly pear pads can be used more or less like aloe vera.
While you're playing with cacti, if you do get pricked, exfoliate! "Wash" your hands (or the affected body part) with dirt or some other exfoliant to get the stickers out. And assume that everything in the kitchen when you're preparing tunas will end up bright pink. It washes off pretty easily, but do yourself a favor and don't wear your favorite outfit anyway.