The prickly pear cactus produces pads and fruit that are a wonderful addition to any diet. They are good for you and taste good. Many are scared off by the spiny surface that makes harvesting, let alone cooking, seem impossible. With a few simple precautions, harvesting your own prickly pear pads and fruit can be a rewarding experience.
Step 1 - Suit up
Prickly pears are not only spiny, they have microscopic hairs called glochids that will stick in your skin and drive you to distraction. Protect your skin during the harvesting process, as well as the cleaning process.
Step 2 - Choose Your Pads and Fruit
The fruit will lose its glochids when it's most ripe, but that season varies depending on the type of prickly pear. Young pads are softer, while older pads are tough, with thicker sap. Choose your preference, but most prefer the younger pads and leave the older ones for the animals to forage from.
Step 3 - Remove Your Pads and Fruit
Pads can be cut off or torn off. Cutting the pads off stresses the rest of the cactus less and is therefore preferable. You can either grip them with your gloves or a pair of long handled tongs. The fruit should be twisted off gently so as not to damage the connecting pads. Place harvested pads and fruit into your bucket.
Step 4 - Wash Your Pads and Fruit
This will rinse off a large percentage of the glochids. You can attempt to tweeze off further glochids, but be careful to rinse the tweezers regularly to minimize transference. You can also rub off glochids with paper towels. Make sure to support the fruit with the towel at all times and avoid bare skin.
Step 5 - Cut Your Pads and Fruit
For the fruit, cut the thick skin off at the top and the bottom. It will take practice to get the cuts accurate. Rinse the knife between cuts in case of glochids. Cut the fruit in half and peel off the skin gently.
For the pads, either use the vegetable peeler to remove the spines and glochids, or burn them off. Some place the pad on the stove or a barbeque, others prefer to direct the flame of a culinary blow torch. Don't worry about charring the surface a little. You can always cut that part off when you prepare the pad.
Step 6 - Eat
Eat! Once your pads and fruit are spine free, enjoy them in any number of recipes.