While the thought of eating a cactus plant sounds more perilous than pleasurable, the prickly pear cactus is one plant that provides a triple whammy of healthy edible fruit, vegetable and flower. Grown widely in the United States, Mexico and South America, the prickly pear cactus also proliferates in the Mediterranean and some areas of South Africa and Australia, where it has become quite a nuisance, taking over farmland. But for today, I’m going to focus on the fruit as it is the easiest to come by, although it still plays hard to get. The prickly pear, with its avocado-shape and beautiful magenta colour, is studded with little prickly spines called glochids. Like an avocado, it gives to slight pressure when ripe; but use caution when you touch. By the time prickly pear has reached the supermarket, most of the spiny prickles have been removed from the skin. I say ‘most,’ as I learned a painful lesson while peeling the pear when a tiny barb managed to work its way under my skin. Slipping on a pair of gloves while removing the skin can help avoid the sting. To prepare for eating, use a paring knife to cut both ends off the pear. Slice vertically through the skin with the tip of the knife, then peel back the skin with your hands. Under the colourful skin, the flesh is a vibrant magenta, dotted with tiny brown seeds. Although the seeds are edible, they are quite hard, and may impede some of the enjoyment of eating a prickly pear. But the taste of the fruit is a delightful burst of watermelon with a hint of cotton candy. When using prickly pear to make jams, ice cream, salad vinaigrettes and beverages, the fruit is pressed and seeds removed. But if you’re feeling ambitious, don’t throw the seeds away. They can be dried and ground into flour for breads or pastries. Prickly pear has only 60 calories per cup and is a good source of Vitamin C, calcium and potassium. And particularly with the seeds, is a very good source of dietary fibre. Next time you’re planning on a special dessert, think of the desert and add some prickly pear to your plate.
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