Opuntia ficus-indica is a species of cactus that has long been a domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. It is thought to possibly be native to Mexico. Some of the common English names for the plant and its fruit are Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, cactus pear and prickly pear, although this last name has also been applied to other less common Opuntia species.
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Prickly Pear Sorbet
8 prickly (cactus) pears (3 pounds total)
1/2 cup simple syrup, recipe follows
2 tablespoons lime juice
Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Wearing rubber gloves, wash the cactus pears and with paper towels, rub off any prickly fuzz left on the skin. Halve the pears lengthwise. Carefully scoop out the flesh and seeds and put them into a blender, leaving the thick shells intact. Put the shells onto the baking sheets and freeze them until hard, about 1 hour.
Add the syrup and lime juice to the blender and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the flavor with more syrup or lime juice, to taste. Strain the puree through a fine sieve, discarding any seeds and pulp.
Pour the sorbet into the frozen shells, smoothing the surface so they are level. Cover with plastic wrap and return the filled shells to the freezer for at least 6 hours. Frozen sorbet shells may be wrapped individually in plastic wrap and kept in the freezer for 1 week.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Put the sugar and water into a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and cool before using. Syrup can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator, for 1 month.
Yield: 3/4 cup
Edible cactus is also known as nopales (no-PAH-les), nopalitos or cactus pads. This vegetable is popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa and Australia. Its popularity is increasing in the United States where it can be found at Mexican grocery stores, specialty produce markets and farmer’s markets.
Edible cactus is characterized by its fleshy oval leaves (typically called pads or paddles) of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus.
With a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked, edible cactus tastes similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or green pepper.
Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
What is the difference between cactus leaves (edible cactus or nopales) and the prickly pear?
As part of the cactus plant, the prickly pear is a fruit that is 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like an avocado. Its skin is coarse and thick, not unlike an avocados and it ranges in color from yellow or orange to magenta or red. Tubercles with small prickly spines can be found on the prickly pear’s skin. This fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color also from yellow to dark red, is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds throughout.
The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended into a smoothie.
Availability, Selection, and Storage
Edible cactus is available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying edible cactus, choose small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Very small paddles may require more cleaning because their larger proportion of prickers and eyes.
Edible cactus can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.
Edible cactus is also sold as:
Canned — pickled or packed in water
Acitrones — candied nopales, packed in sugar syrup and available in cans or jars.
See preparation technique ay Simply Recipes
The edible cactus you buy should be de-spined though you will need to trim the “eyes,” to remove any remaining prickers, and outside edges of the pads with a vegetable peeler. Trim off any dry or fibrous areas and rinse thoroughly to remove any stray prickers and sticky fluid.
Edible cactus can be eaten raw or cooked. To cook, steam over boiling water for just a few minutes (if cooked too long they will lose their crunchy texture). Then slice and eat! Cactus can also be cut and sautéed in butter or oil for a few minutes.
Steamed cactus can be added to scrambled eggs and omelets, or diced fresh and added to tortillas. They can also be substituted for any cooked green in most dishes.
The pads can be served as a side dish or cooled and used in salads. They taste especially good with Mexican recipes that include tomatoes, hot peppers and fresh corn.