Prickly Pears

By Amy Crowell
Photography by Marla Camp

The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii and other species) is one thorn-ful and familiar Texas icon packed with history and flavor. Yes, flavor! Take a drive north, south, east and especially west of Austin, and you’ll notice a plethora of these medium-size cacti dotting old farm fields and roadsides along the way. Stop at a country store on the drive, and you’re sure to find some sort of jelly or sauce made out of the cactus fruits known as tunas or, of course, pears. 

The prickly pear is easy to identify with its green, flat pads sticking up all over like Mickey Mouse ears, and, in late summer, its oval-shaped fruits shining ripe and magenta-red on top of the green pads. Thorns aside (we’ll get into those later), the prickly pear’s stems, pads, flower petals and fruits are all edible. The pads provide a tasty and nutritious green vegetable that can be sliced and added to soups or sautés. The most tender and tasty pads, commonly known as nopalitos, are identified by the tiny green leaves sprouting from them in the spring, but pads can be harvested and eaten at any time of the year. The ripe fruit, or tuna, can be eaten raw or made into delicious sweet drinks and desserts; the crunchy yellow, orange or red flower petals make a colorful addition to any salad or sandwich.

When harvesting the prickly pear pads or fruit, be sure to wear thick gloves and long sleeves. The thorns have a nasty bite, and the tiny, nearly invisible ones called “glochids” can fester under your skin for weeks. Use tongs or pliers to grasp the pads or fruits, then cut them from the plant with a sharp knife.

Once they’re harvested, be sure to remove all of the thorns before preparing your dish. Hold the pads over a flame to singe the spines and then scrape off the remaining thorns with a knife. Check and double-check to make sure all of the thorns are gone! Rinse your harvest and, if you’re using older pads, be sure to peel the tough outer skin.

To prepare and eat the tuna, rub off the glochids, cut them in half, remove the seeds (I hear they can be ground up and used as flour) and scoop out the sweet, fleshy insides for a refreshing treat. You can also make juice out of the tuna for use in jam, ice cream, icing, sauce…the possibilities are endless.