You know you’ve seen them. Those big, flat cactus paddles, clumped in sometimes-odd configurations and studded with tantalizingly vibrant pink fruit. Prickly pear cacti are classic West Texas scenery, and they’re abundant in Abilene. It was only a few years ago, after living in Abilene for over a decade, that I learned that the fruit and cactus pad are edible—and learned how tasty the fruit can be!
So today I bring you a prickly pear story / guidance for making your very own prickly pear juice. Next week I’ll follow up with some recipes and ideas for using the juice.
Now, before we get started, there are a couple things you need to know. First, I am much better at driving to the grocery store than growing, hunting, or foraging my own food, but there’s something so invigorating about harvesting produce from the earth’s bounty. And the resulting juice feels extra special when it’s mine and my friends’ hands who picked, chopped, boiled, mashed, and strained the fruit that produced it! Second, know that this process takes time, especially if you want very much juice at the end. But none of it takes a huge amount of skill or special equipment. Just round up a friend or two, get a good Pandora station going, and enjoy!
- Gather up your tools. For harvesting, you’ll need bucket(s) and long-handled tongs. For processing, you’ll need a rake (like you use to rake leaves), duct tape, at least two large pots, a cutting board and knife, a sturdy colander, a potato masher, a ladle, a funnel with a strainer (or a funnel plus a small fine strainer), and jars to hold and store the juice.
- Find some land with plenty of prickly pears. I usually pick on my friends’ land, and I have other friends who pick along the side of a little country road behind their house. Use the tongs to pick the fruit. Look for fruit that is darker in color—deep purpley red more so than bright pink.
- Fill up as many buckets as your heart desires. Each gallon of fruit will yield roughly a gallon of juice. Take them home.
- To remove the small hair-like prickles from the fruit, dump them in batches onto your lawn. Use a rake to rake over them, jumble them up, etc. The idea is to knock most of the prickles off the fruit in the process. Use tongs to return the fruit to a bucket, trying to minimize the amount of grass and dirt that wind up mixed in with the fruit.
- Wrap your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger of your non-dominant hand in duct tape. From now on, use only these digits to handle the fruit, because even though we just knocked off most of the prickles, we almost certainly didn’t get them all.
Note: The first time I did this, I thought it would be great to use rubber garden gloves to save me from the prickles, but they were actually kind of terrible, because they basically just grabbed the prickles and held them in or close to my skin. The duct tape has proven much better protection for me. Also, if you do get prickled, it’s more uncomfortable than actually painful. It mostly feels tingly—kind of like that prickly feeling when your foot falls asleep. So take precautions but have no fear—and keep a pair of tweezers handy!
- Rinse the fruit well, and cut it in half or quarters longways. If your fruit looks like the fruit on the left in the photo below, that’s perfect! If it looks like the fruit on the right, toss it. It will not taste good. Trust me on this one. If it’s mostly red/pink with some light pink/white, it’s marginal but okay.
- Fill up a pot with the cut fruit, then add enough water to just cover the fruit. Bring to a boil over high heat, then boil for 10 minutes.
- Place a colander over a second large pot, and pour the fruit/water/juice into the colander. Use a potato masher to press the fruit well, squeezing out as much juicy goodness as possible. Discard the solids (or if you or your friends have backyard chickens, save the fruit for them). You’ll end up with some seeds in your juice; that’s okay because we’re about to strain them out.
- Use a ladle, funnel, and fine mesh strainer to transfer the juice into jars while straining out the seeds. If you plan to use the juice right away, feel free to fill each jar to the brim. However, if you plan to freeze the juice, be sure to leave about an inch at the top of each jar to allow for expansion. I typically store the juice in half-pint and pint-sized mason jars in the freezer. It’ll keep well in the freezer for well over a year.
- Now, clean your kitchen and enjoy the fruits of your labor (pun fully intended). And remember to check back next week for some tasty prickly pear recipes!