This is the fruit of a cactus which grows from the southern deserts of Mexico up into British Columbia in Canada. When I lived in San Jose, California I had an 8 foot tall plant in my backyard but the Canadian ones rarely reach 8 inches in height. After carefully peeling the fruit to remove the pulp and sieving it to remove seeds, buzz it up in a blender with lime juice.

A prickly pear cactus consists of a number of flat, tear-shaped, green pads, each complete with a bunch of stickers growing out from it. If you hack away at a prickly pear cactus and leave one or more of the pads lying on the ground, it will eventually form its own roots, and start growing again. Prickly pear cacti are often found growing in patches throughout the desert, and in my experience are usually no more than a few feet high (although they will grow rather large given enough time). If there's nothing better around, and they're very thirsty, cows will sometimes take a bite out of a prickly pear.

It is worth noting that the green pads can be eaten, and are part of a few Mexican dishes (nopalitos). Although I've never tried eating the leaves, they can be bought in supermarkets (even Fry's!) here in Arizona. Why anyone would buy them when they are so readily available is beyond me. While you don't see them much in the cities, there are lots in the outskirts, in peoples' yards, or in forgotten pockets of wilderness, like alleys and untended street medians.

Prickly pear cacti can grow very large -- there was a single plant (or community of plants) on the other side of the fence from my elementary school playground that took up around 25 square feet and rose to a height of around 6 feet. Tasty.

The fruit, when ripe, is purple-red in color and can be made into a tasty jelly, but the preparations are time-consuming and prickly.

Here's how to peel a prickly pear ...without getting spines, that is.

Prickly pears are Nature's way of teasing gluttons. The pulp is colorful, sugary, delicious; the seeds are small, the peel comes off easily, unlike apples or pears.The spines are next to invisible, insidious, ubiquitous and annoying as hell!

At first your hand seems fine, until you flex your finger in a certain way, or touch something, or move your thumb like that. Then the spines says "hello, the pulp has been digested three hours ago but we've decided to keep you company for the rest of the day".

After a nasty experience that left me somewhat bruised, I decided to leave those tasty fruits alone - until I met mr. Domenico, a calabrese who taught me The Way.

  • Use a fork to spear a fruit in the middle, with the prongs aligned with the axis; don't push too deeply or the pulp will split - just hold it firmly against the plate.
  • Cut off both ends with a sharp knife with a rounded point.
  • Make an incision along the axis, from end to end, about 1 cm to the right of the prongs of the fork; don't cut too deeply.
  • Insert the knife point in the incision and gently lift the peel to the right, rolling the pear with the fork as you proceed. If the pear is too ripe it will split at this point; use a spoon to scoop out the pulp, it's still quite good.
  • If you have godlike powers, after lifting the first flap you can use the point of the knife to pin it to the plate, and unroll the rest of the peel with a single fluid semicircular motion of the fork hand. (If you are a mere mortal, read on).
  • When you have lifted half of the peel, take the fork out and use it on the now-peeled part.
  • Use the knife to lift the other half of the peel. Slice the peeled pear into disks. Enjoy.

Green pears are the easiest to peel, but they aren't very tasty; yellow, orange and green-purple are more difficult, but they have a fully ripened flavour; deep red ones must be cut in half and eaten with a spoon, always holding down the fruit with a fork.

For some unexplained reason you'll still get a couple of spines at least, even if you always kept the fruit at fork length, but this is a small price to pay.

A word to the wise: after a romantic (possibly sicilian) dinner, it's a nice finishing touch to peel and cut those fruits for your girl. In these cases, getting a spine in your finger is doubly annoying for obvious reasons.

(The spines show up quite clearly if you put your hand under a lamp in front of a black background; once you've located the suckers, it's tweezers time).

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