Opuntia, better known as prickly pear, is a cactus that is most known for both its edible paddles and fruits. Here in Greece where I am living, you will find these cacti growing along many roadsides since they grow really well on dry and rocky ground. Usually, by the end of August and throughout September (now!) the prickly pear cacti are totally covered in bright orange and red colored prickly pear fruits which will be ready for harvest all throughout the month and some of the next. While basically almost the entire plant is edible, it’s these sweet, juicy fruits that are most popular amongst Greeks.
Every time we are on holiday in Naxos, we collect a whole bunch of these fruits (and many others) from the many plants we find growing along the rocky roadsides. The fruits can be eaten as is (I describe how to pick and peel them safely at the bottom of this post) and they usually are consumed that way, but one can only eat so many of them as they are very sweet and the little hard seeds and all that crunching get a bit tiring (or perhaps this is only my problem?).
With an abundance of prickly pear fruits (really, there are so many that most of them are left to drop to the ground), I wanted to use them in a recipe which would allow me to use up a couple of them in one go… Of course, they do really well in a simple syrup for lemonade, in ice cream, or on cakes, BUT, since summer is basically ending and I am not ready to say bye-bye to all lovely summer fruits just yet, I really like the idea of making loads of jellies, jams, chutneys and other fruity condiments to last me throughout autumn and winter.
Also, there’s no better way to say goodbye to the final days of summer and to welcome the first days of autumn than having a nice garden barbecue, so I believe the best thing you can do with prickly pears is to make the ‘prickly pear barbecue sauce’ recipe below. I like to use it both as a glaze for pork ribs and as a glaze or dipping sauce for chicken wings – delicious!
The bbq sauce is mostly made with some of the usual ingredients one would use in a regular barbecue sauce – tomato ketchup, onion, vinegar and something sweet such as brown sugar and honey (or both in this case) – but it has about a cup of prickly pear fruit juice, which gives the sauce a slightly fruitier note that reminds me slightly of banana ketchup. Of course you can adjust the flavourings and spices as you please; add more honey, or sugar if you’ve got a sweet tooth, add more or less chili pepper, or chili powder (or none) depending on how well you do with spiciness, or add a bit more smoked paprika powder to add a bit of extra smokiness.
Note: When using this barbecue sauce as a glaze for oven-roasted, or grilled meat, glaze the meat in the final minutes of cooking. The sauce is quite sugary and burns easily when on the grill / in the oven.
How to pick and clean prickly pears?
So, you’ve found a bunch of cacti full of fruits along a roadside? Now the question is: how to pick the prickly pears? The answer: very carefully.
Not only are the cacti themselves covered in spikes, the cactus pears are covered in tiny little spiky hairs (glochids) that are quite annoying to get rid of. You could very carefully pick the fruits with your bare hands, but most of the time these little glochids will get you. If you really want to try to avoid the annoyance and pain use gloves, or thick leaves you may find growing nearby to grab on to the fruits and toss them in a plastic bag until you get home. At home, dump the fruits into the sink and run them under cold water to get rid of SOME of the little spines that fell off. Still don’t touch the fruits with your bare hands and maybe toss those gloves you’ve used into a fire.
To clean the prickly pear fruits for consumption, you will need a cutting board, a fork and a small sharp knife.
Because of those prickly little hairs I’ve mentioned, the best way to clean the prickly pears is to pick up and hold the fruits down by piercing them with a fork. While holding the fruit stable with a fork, cut off the ends off the fruit. With your knife, make a lengthwise incision along the fruit’s skin about 0.5cm deep and gently peel away the thick outer layer of the fruit with the side of your knife.
Once you get past the tough skin you are left with a delicious brightly coloured, sweet fruits (the seeds are edible) with a flavor reminiscent of a cross between a melon, a fig and an overly ripe banana. They’re truly sweet like candy and very versatile: eat them as they are, make a delicious juice, jam, chutney, or this prickly pear bbq sauce below!
Prickly Pear Barbecue Sauce
- 6 - 7 ripe fresh prickly pear fruits (about 1 cup pulp/juice)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ red onion, very finely minced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 small chili pepper (any type), or ½ teaspoon hot chili powder (optional)
- ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika powder
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 cup (225g) tomato ketchup
- 80ml apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershiresauce
- 1 tablespoon lime-, or lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- ¼ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- Clean the prickly pears: Carefully cut the ends off the prickly pears and stick a fork into one end. With a knife, carefully peel the outer skins of all the prickly pears [see photo and explanation in post above for clearer instructions].
- Make prickly pear ‘puree’/juice: Add your prickly pears (seeds and all) to a food processor. Process until the prickly pears have turned into a thin puree or slightly thick juice. Pass the ‘puree’ from a mesh sieve to remove all seeds. Set puree aside.
- Sweat the onion and aromatics: Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the finely minced onion and sauté until translucent for about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic, ground black pepper, smoked paprika powder and chili (if using) and for sauté another minute or two.
- Add all of the remaining ingredients + prickly pear juice and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer then reduce the heat to low. Allow to simmer until slightly thickened for about 20 - 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings according to taste (more salt or pepper, more honey for sweetness, etc.).
- Use the sauce as a dipping sauce for meat, or as a glaze for grilled meat. When using it as a glaze for charcoal-grilled and oven-roasted meats, add glaze only during the final minutes of cooking to avoid burning.