Autumn is a time of changes, of honoring the seasonal cycles taking place in the wild and within ourselves. I have found the ritual of picking prickly pears to be one that invites mindful acceptance of these transformations and the resulting juice makes a fine foundation for some of the season’s best drinks and foods. Some of you might be thinking ‘is it really worth all the effort to work with cactus fruits with prickly spines?’ and the answer is absoluteley yes! Here is why:
The many species of Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.) occupy diverse habitats, thrive in a variety of climate and soil conditions, and grow in many different bioregions. Their adaptability makes them widely available to most of us as a sustainable source of wild food and medicine. The fruits, or tunas, as they are known in the Southwest begin to ripen in September and continue on throughout the Fall and into Winter. Both the fruits and the pads are useful plant medicine as well as commonly foraged wild foods. They are an effective folk remedy for high blood sugar and the pads are also useful antidotes for the hazard they bring to a dryland hike. Slice open the pads to make an extremely soothing and cooling poultice for splinters and other skin irritations. Back to the fruits ~
The fruits produce a delicious juice that can be the base for a variety of foods and beverages. Many people are discouraged by thinking about the spines and tiny glochids getting under their skin. I have found this concern to be highly overrated. Simply soak the pears in warm water for 10 minutes and most of the glochids float away. Using your harvesting tongs, take them out of the water, slice off the brown end and then slice them once lengthwise. Now you can easily peel the skin off with a knife. Its similar to peeling a cucumber but with awareness for any stubborn glochids that remain (and there are always a few!). Put the peeled halved chunks of fruit into your blender to juice them. They blend into juice quickly and easily. The final step is to push it all through a strainer to filter out the many seeds. After a little practice you will get your method down and should be able to produce a lot of juice in a reasonable amount of time. I get about 1 ounce of juice or more per average-sized pear.
There are many ways to use this juice and I’ll bet you already have some ideas of your own. Here are a few of the Prickly Pear delights that we made this year: pancake syrup, green smoothies, fermented soda, lemonade, and we even put it in our oatmeal. We used the prickly pear syrup to flavor many of our culinary creations but also used the juice mixed with favorite herbal tea blends or just straight juice. My kids especially loved the fermented soda and these Prickly Pear Lemon Bars for your sweet tooth.
- 1/4 cup each quinoa flour, almond flour, coconut flour, and whole wheat flour (1 cup combined)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/8 cup each ground hempseeds and sunflower seeds (1/4 cup total)
- 1/4 cup softened butter
- 1/8 cup each water and prickly pear juice (1/4 cup combined)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 egg whites
- 2 TBSP flour
- 3 TBSP fresh lemon juice OR fresh lime juice
- 1 tsp lemon zest OR lime zest
- 3 TBSP prickly pear juice (as described above)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
Prepare the crust by mixing the ingredients thoroughly and pressing them into the bottom of your buttered/oiled square or circular pan. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Prepare the topping by beaitng all the ingredients together and pour this over the baked crust. Bake again at 350 for 25 minutes. (I am baking at 5000 feet altitude.) I sprinkled the top with my favorite granola. Cool completely before slicing.
By Dara Saville, October 2014