As the summer heat slowly begins to die down and the first autumn breezes roll around, prickly pear cactus fruit, known as tuna in Mexico, is coming out bright and ripe. It’s a magical time.
Prickly pear cactus is a characteristic plant of Texas. Wide-faced, inverted teardrop paddles grow in close clusters; some are studded with sharp needles, others bred to be smooth and prick-free. These are the same tasty paddles known as nopales or nopalitos in Mexico that are used there in many dishes. Nicole, my teacher at Wildflower Herb School, cites cactus as the most prolific food source in Central Texas that is underutilized.
In the spring, their lush pink and yellow flowers bloom with petals as plump and succulent as the cactus itself. They are delicate and soft, distinctly feminine. Their centers are thick with a sweet, intoxicating nectar that draws bees and insects from all over to drink until they drop. Nicole likens peering into one to looking in on a bumpin’ party, bugs of all kinds staggering around, happy and drunk together.
When late summer or early fall rolls around, the flowers have fallen away and the fruits, growing along the edges of the paddles like swollen-tipped fingers, begin to change from green to a deep, intense pinkish-purple. They too boast studded patches of spiny glochids, but these are so tiny that they’re notorious for making their way into your skin unnoticed, only to shock you with a prick of pain later when you rub them in the wrong direction.
Enjoying a tuna requires caution, patience, and respect for the plant. Not only does it take a quiet, still mind and steady movement to navigate a cactus patch and cut its fruits away without getting pricked, but it also takes discretion to choose the right plant at the right time. Identifying a prickly pear cactus on the roadside, in a neighbor’s yard, or at a state park doesn’t give you free license to harvest.
If you know the land and the plant you’re picking from, your next challenge is to clean the fruit. It isn’t nearly as easy as coring an apple or peeling a banana. First, take care of those spines by burning them off or (very!) carefully cutting the skin away with a paring knife. It helps to cut off the ends first so that the fruit sits flat. You will need to hold it steady with a long fork or pair of tongs to do this. Keep a pair of tweezers handy—you will probably still end up with a finger or two full of tiny needles.
The flesh is full of hard seeds and flavonoids and is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, dripping with delicious, vividly-colored juice. It is a great food for regulating blood sugar and for the circulatory system, strengthening the veins and capillaries.
Most prefer to juice it, straining out the hard seeds, but they can also be eaten whole. The juice is often added to drinks and margaritas or made into jellies and wines.
In Mexico, the fruits are used in everything from salads to baked goods.
Prickly pear fruit juice (and sometimes even the whole fruits) can often be found at Latino or specialty stores. If you get a hold of some and are looking for something to do with them, check back later this week for a smoothie recipe with tuna, mango, and parsley.