The prickly pear cactus plant grows wild throughout the southern region of Arizona where the air is warm and dry. It produces large, green, succulent pads that bear plump, juicy fruits in the late summer months.
Prickly pear pads (nopales) have been eaten by the Native Americans for centuries. The pads are picked from the cactus but must be handled with care; the hairlike spines that project from the pads can easily get caught in your skin.
Cactus pads are found in most Mexican markets. It is better to choose the smaller and thicker deep-green pads because they are the most tender. Usually fresh cactus pads are sold whole. For convenience, however, they may also be purchased in jars already diced and even precooked in their natural juices.
To clean the whole pads, hold them with a kitchen towel and remove the spines and rounded outside edge of the pads with a small paring knife or vegetable peeler.
PRICKLY PEAR FRUITS
Traditionally, prickly pear fruits are harvested in late summer. A brush made from wild grass is used to remove their fine, hairlike prickers and soft spines. To remove the prickers in a more conventional way, hold the fruit with metal tongs under cold running water and scrub the prickers off with a vegetable scrubbing brush.
When selecting fruits from the marketplace, be careful to choose those that are soft but not overripe. The may range in color from greenish-yellow to bright red, the latter being the ripest and best to eat. If the spines have not been removed, be careful when handling the fruits; the spines are small and difficult to remove from your hands. If only green fruits are available, store them at room temperature until they ripen to red.
To extract the juice from the fruits, wash them thoroughly under cold running water, cut off the ends, and cut in half lengthwise. Place then in a food processor and puree to a fine pulp. Press the pulp through a fine sieve, using a wooden spoon or spatula to remove the seeds, which should be discarded. Use the juice according to recipe instructions. Twelve prickly pears make approximately 1 cup of juice.