Of all the edible wild foods that man has figured out how to exploit, one has to wonder about how hungry he must have been to tackle the prickly pear. (To be perfectly correct, I would speculate that woman probably tackled this one while man was out tackling the cave bear. It’s a tough call who had the worse end of the provisioning stick. They both fight back.)
Prickly pear cacti (Optunia ficus indica) grow wild throughout the world in arid climates, providing a food source from their ruby red prickly fruits and their flat spiny paddles. We’ve enjoyed both in restaurants from Sicily to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as well as in our own kitchens.
Prickly pear fruit on the plant come studded with fairly easy to see large spines and about a bazillion practically invisible no-see-um spicules that will happily embed themselves in your palm when you so much as touch them. They have to be picked with great care, most often by using a remarkable, high-tech picking device: a tin soup can nailed to a broom handle. With this ingenious apparatus, the picker can snap the fruit from the plant and plop it into a bucket without really touching it. When it comes time to prepare it, however, you need steel gloves–or at least impervious ones–and a good stiff bristled brush to scrub away all the prickles under running water.
Along the dusty roads of Mexico or Sicily, you’ll often see vendors selling them from truckbeds or roadside stands–beware the spines on these and touch only with gloved hands. In our part of the world, you can find prickly pear fruit and paddles in farmer’s markets or even the produce sections of some grocery stores–even here, I use paper towels to put them into a sack.
In Mexico the fruit are called las tunas, not to be confused with the fish of the same name, which in Spanish isn’t tuna at all. In Italy, the name is fichi de India or Indian figs. In Sicily, in the local dialect the name comes out sounding like fig-a-DEENya. Their deep garnet flesh is faintly sweet, quite refreshing, and studded with firm edible seeds, sort of like those in pomegranates.
On a trip through Sicily with food friends, the fichi were plentiful and served often, cool, simply peeled and sliced on a plate as dessert. Mike went absolutely bananas over them and looked for them in every restaurant we entered. One evening, as the group of us marched through to our table, he found a large bowl of them sitting on a serving console. He picked one up, commented on it, and set it back onto the pile. It looked clean–its large spines were gone, anyway–but he immediately knew he’d made a terrible mistake. His thumb and index finger were riddled with invisible needles. He asked a waiter standing nearby–in some combination of pigeon-Italian and sign language–how to get them out. The answer was all sign language: the waiter put his thumb to his mouth and began to scrape with his teeth. Not the answer Mike was hoping for, but apparantly the only effective mode of removal. (If anyone knows of a better one, please do let us know!) He spent a good portion of that evening with his fingers in his mouth, working at the spines. Despite it, he enjoyed the fichi for dessert.
Prickly pear fruit are well-suited to a low carb diet, having only about 6 effective carb grams per medium-sized fruit (9.9 grams total carb with 3.7 grams fiber.) They’re also a powerfully rich source of potassium, each one containing about 227 milligrams, about the same as a whole medium tomato and about half that in the famous potassium superstar, the banana, which has 450 mg, but also comes packaged with 24 grams of effective carb. You could eat 4 prickly pears and get double the potassium for that same 24 grams. Better yet, have a tomato with your salad and a prickly pear for dessert and save half the carbs!
Their rich, red color means they’re a good source of antioxidant compounds, too–which would make sense, since their DNA has to be protected against the blistering damage they receive at the hands of the sun. A couple of interesting scientific articles indicate it has potent benefits incardiovascular diseaseprotector of the endothelium (the lining of the blood vessels), as a lipid-protecting antioxidant and may even have some anti-ulcer capabilities from the phenolic compounds it contains.
Alternative health sources claim that they’re beneficial for lowering bad cholesterol, improving insulin sensitivity, and a improving a host of other maladies.I haven’t been able to come up with any really good studies backing up those specific claims, but what I do know is that they’re delicious, they’re low carb, and eating them surely can’t hurt you–if you handle them carefully!