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How to clean, cook and eat prickly pears

Difficult to handle, but very tasty to eat: they are the prickly pears, a delicious fruit widespread on the Italian tables of the South but still too little used in mainstream cuisine. Perhaps it’s the fault of its hard rind and the small thorns that surround it. But it only takes a little attention and creativity to get from this fruit that “smells of sunshine” exotic and tasty results. Here’s how to clean and eat prickly pears.

What are prickly pears?

The term prickly pear (also written as a single word, prickly pear) means both the plant belonging to the species of cacti and the fruit generated by it. The scientific name of the plant is Opuntia ficus-indica. Native to Mexico and already traded at the time of the Aztecs, it then spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and in the temperate zones of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

The prickly pears are so called because they were brought to the Old Continent by Christopher Columbus. It was 1943. The famous navigator landed in the Americas, believed to have landed instead on the coast of India. When he brought these fruits, which the Aztecs called nopali, to the royal court they were nicknamed prickly pears.

The plant of the prickly pear is composed of shovels, stems modified by the flattened and oval shape, of the length of about 30-40 cm, which assure the photosynthesis and the water reserve. The leaves of this plant, on the contrary, have a conical shape and are only a few millimetres long. On the shovels are born first the flowers that then give way to a fleshy berry with many seeds (up to 300 per unit): prickly pear fruit.

The weight of this fruit can vary from 150 to 400 grams. The colour of the fig varies according to the variety: it is yellow-orange if it belongs to the sulflore, red-purple in the blood variety, while it is white if it belongs to the muscaredda. Depending on the period in which they are born, the shape also varies. The first prickly pears are roundish, the later ones have an elongated and pedunculate shape.

Not everyone knows that the edible parts of the prickly pear plant are actually three: the shovels (which can be cooked like a common vegetable), the flower petals (which can be mixed with the ingredients of a salad), and the fruits. The shovels have more or less the same consistency as the jackdaws, just cut them into strips and boil them until they soften. However, they can also be eaten grilled.

Among the varieties preserved by the PDO mark there is the prickly pear of San Cono. This variety grows in the municipalities of San Cono and San Michele di Ganzaria in the province of Catania, Piazza Armerina in the province of Enna and Mazzarino in the province of Caltanissetta. They are obtained from the cultivars Surfarina or Nostrale, Sanguigna, Muscaredda or Sciannarina. It is a variety whose fruit has large size, a high sugar content and a bright color of skin and pulp.

Prickly Pears: nutritional properties and values

Prickly pears are rich in vitamin C, so much so that in the past navigators used them to prevent scurvy. They have a high potassium and magnesium content, contain many fibers that help the intestinal peristalsis and contrastano the problem of constipation. They are indicated as a snack because, thanks to the contribution of fiber, increase the sense of satiety. They are also useful to assimilate less fat and sugar, thus keeping blood sugar and overweight at bay. Prickly pears also promote diuresis, reducing the risk of kidney stones.

Their calorie intake is limited: 55 kcal is released per 100 grams of fruit.

How to recognize when they are ripe

When you buy prickly pears, you have to choose those with orange-red skin. Inside, the flesh will be ruby or dark purple: they are the best fruits, the sweetest ones.

How to peel and remove thorns from prickly pears

Once you have purchased the prickly pears, to eat the sweet fruit you will need to remove the thorns and peel them. Get a colander and put them under the cold water jet moving them a bit. Only after this operation you can touch them with your hands. If you are afraid that a plug that has survived the current of water will get into your hands, use gloves. Cut the peel lengthwise and use a knife to accompany the cut from the inside, pulling it away with a single movement.

How to eat prickly pears

Once cleaned, the prickly pear pulp can be cut and eaten piece by piece with a fork, or served on a toothpick. Seeds can be ingested but should not be bitten because they are very hard. In case of discomfort, you can even spit them out.

Ideas for recipes with prickly pears

Natural prickly pears are a perfect ingredient to embellish a fresh salad of oranges, olives and cheese, or to prepare a sweet fruit salad to be served at the end of a meal or as an afternoon snack. But prickly pears are an ingredient with which to indulge even in the kitchen. For example, peelings can become chips. Without the thrusts and cut into strips, you can bread them with egg and breadcrumbs and fry them. A piece of the fruit wrapped in a slice of speck can become a delicious finger food with an exotic flavor. Prickly Pear juice can also be used to make prickly pear risotto.

How to preserve prickly pears

Once you have cleaned the prickly pears, you can choose to store them in a plastic or stainless steel container, covering them with a cloth soaked in cold water and well wrung. Store them in the fridge: stored in this way they can last at least 3-4 days. You can also put them in a vacuum bag or choose to wrap each fruit in a transparent film, before always storing in the refrigerator.

In some regions of southern Italy it is also used to store prickly pears drying them in the sun. After having cut them into thick washers, sprinkle each piece with a nice pinch of brown sugar and wait for them to dry, turning them every day first on one side and then on the other. Another method of preserving prickly pears is linked to the world of jams and marmalades. Buying the fruits of the season, it makes mustard of prickly pears to be spread on ricotta cheese or as an accompaniment to cheeses.

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