I have by now spent an enormous number of years on this planet, more than I care to admit, and about half of that time has been in the United States. But there are still occasional things that pop up to surprise me.
This time it was a pink egg. A giant, pink, mottled egg that sat all by its lonesome in a farmer’s stall in a market. Visions of pretty pink birdlings hatching out of it floating before me, I purchased it. Who could resist?
The man at the stall was nice enough to tell me that this was a cactus fruit. Now cactus plants are a bit of a strange beast for me, in the sense that I can’t easily place them in the plant family. Is that big fleshy thing supposed to be a leaf or a stem? Do they fruit? Why does the fruit appear stuck to the blade of what appears to be a leaf?¹
Clearly there are many, many gaps in my knowledge. But thanks to Mr. Farmers Market, I have filled one small gap.
Nopales or ‘prickly pear’ is a type of cactus that is native to Mexico. It has giant green oblong pads covered in spines. The pads are chopped up and eaten as a vegetable (very often by me, in my burrito). These pads produce pink egg-shaped fruit. This prickly pear fruit is what I saw that morning at the market.
The way one eats it is — first, before all else, remove the spines. Now this was already done for me at the market, and if you are lucky this is how you will find the fruit sold. Next, peel off the outer thick peel, which comes off quite easily with a paring knife.
Inside, you find flesh of a deep magenta, granular and with high water content. The texture resembles kiwi or watermelon. The flesh can be eaten raw. But it has small round seeds studded throughout the flesh. There is actually no way to avoid eating the seeds, which to me were a nice crunchy backdrop to the melony flesh. But I can see that it would bother the squeamish. The seeds do limit it use in things like fruit salads and pies.
How was it to taste? Very unobjectionable. It has a mild flavor and is not terribly sweet. Apparently it is a nutritional powerhouse with high amounts of vitamin C, magnesium and calcium. I do sense that there is some hype surrounding its magical restorative properties on the interwebs though.
Other than eating it as is, here are a couple things you can do with it.
Juice it in a blender, then strain out the seeds. I believe you will want to sweeten the juice and perhaps liven it up with some lime or lemon.
Another trick was suggested to me by Mr. Farmers Market: put some cubes in some clear filtered water; this will quickly take on the deep magenta of the fruit while the flavor is affected in a very mild way. A good way to make a base for fruit punch, or, perhaps drinkable ‘blood’ for Halloween.
¹I have since discovered that in a typical cactus, the leaves have been adapted into the spines, while the stems have adapted to form the green (photosynthetic) part — usually the succulent, squat structure that bears the spines. This is called the areoles. So in the nopales cactus, the vegetable part that one eats is the modified stem. Now it is no mystery that the egg-shaped fruit comes attached to what I believed to be the leaf blade: that is indeed, the stem, and the fruit grow from the stem in the usual way.