Cactus and their fruits are a large part of Mexican cuisine. The wide, flat cactus pads ("nopales") are used in many Mexican main dishes such as salads, eggs and as a filling for other dishes. The cactus fruit, sometimes called a "Prickly Pears" are very sweet and can be eaten raw, right off of the plant. Depending on the level of ripeness, they can range from slightly sweet to syrupy sweet.
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Identifying and Harvesting Cactus Fruit
Cactus fruit grows on the edges of the flat pads of the cactus, and are pear-shaped. They can range in color from green (less sweet) to red (very sweet) and orange shades in between. The little spots you see on them are not thorns, but they are covered in glochids which are like little hair-like splinters that can stick into your skin and are very painful and very hard to see. When picking a prickly pear cactus fruit, you must protect your hands. You can use thick gloves or an old towel folded... into a couple of layers. I have also used about six paper towels stacked together and it worked just fine. Use the gloves or towels to grip the fruit, and gently twist it. The greener fruits will require a firmer grip and more twisting, and the riper fruits will pop right off with very little effort. Place the fruits into a bowl or basket. Do not touch the fruit with your bare hands.
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Preparing the Cactus Fruit
First, you will need to get the glochids off so that you can handle the fruit. (If you purchase the fruit from a store, these glochids should already be removed.) The glochids can easily be burned off over an open flame. Grip a fruit with a pair of tongs or stick it on the end of a fork. Slowly turn the fruit over the open flame. As the glochids burn off you may hear popping sounds or see little sparks fly off the fruit. Continue until the all of the spots are blackened, indicating the glochids... are gone. Don't forget to get the top and bottom of the fruit, as the glochid spots are more concentrated there.
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Cutting the Skin of the Cactus Fruit
Begin by slicing about one-quarter inch off of the ends of the fruit. Then take your knife and slice the skin of the fruit lengthwise across the top, about one-quarter inch down into the fruit.
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Removing the Skin From the Cactus Fruit
Use your fingers to pull the skin back off of the fruit. The skin is thin on the outside, but has a thick layer underneath that comes off too. Peel all of the skin off so that you are left with just the interior pear-shaped piece of fruit.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Serving the Prickly Pear
Now that the skin is removed, you can slice up the prickly pear to eat. The prickly pear has small, hard seeds that you cannot bite through, but they are safe to swallow if you prefer. Or you can chew on the fruit and seeds and spit the seeds out. You can also use a juicer or strainer to remove the seeds.
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