In season: prickly pears

“Handle with care.”

If you saw a sign like that next to a basket of fruit, you’d expect to find a delicate object, perhaps one that’s easy to bruise. But “handle with care” also applies to the prickly pear.

It’s the fruit of the Opuntia cactus, a group of cacti native to the Americas that seemingly thrives all around the world. This particular cactus is also known as paddle cactus and is the source of both bright purple fruit and stem segments called “paddles” or “nopales.”

Whitley Abel of Ups and Downs Farm in Franklin brings prickly pear fruit to sell at the Moore Farms and Friends booth at the Saturday morning Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center. He finds his customers appreciate having the option of purchasing this unusual item.

“Everybody loves anything different at the market, especially fruit. It takes a long time to get fruit trees established and there’s not enough local fruit to meet demand. Harvesting prickly pear cactus is an easy way to add to that whole dynamic,” said Abel.

Prickly pear cactus is a common yard planting in some areas, including the yard of a gentleman Abel met when working on rewiring his house. Abel asked permission to harvest the fruit and has been picking it there ever since.

To enjoy the fruit, you first have to get rid of the tiny spines spaced in small clumps all over the peel. “Wear gloves or use tongs when you handle them. You can burn off the spines by holding the fruit with tongs and spinning it over the flame of a gas stove.”

You can also carefully peel the fruit, again holding the fruit with tongs or gloves, and discard both peel and spines together.

Abel enjoys the fruit raw, eating the pulp while avoiding, or sometimes chewing through, the hard seeds. But he’s also a fan of shrubs which he makes from a variety of local fruit. A batch of prickly pear fruit sold to the Kimball House in Decatur went into shrubs for their bar program.

Shrub methods vary and Abel shares his. “Peel the fruit and chop it finely in a blender or food processor. Mix the fruit with an equal weight of sugar, which you can vary more or less by how sweet the fruit is, and let it sit in a glass or ceramic container. Stay away from aluminum that will react to the acidity in the vinegar in the next step. Add an equal amount of vinegar as sugar. It can wait a week in your refrigerator. Strain out the solids and it will keep for several weeks refrigerated.”

Abel especially appreciates the healthful aspects of fruit shrubs. “To make my shrubs, I use a vinegar with a live mother. That mother breaks down the sugar in the shrub, and when you drink it, helps break down the sugar in your gut.”

Mother of vinegar is the bacteria culture that turns cider, wine and other liquids into vinegar.

Abel makes shrubs all year with whatever is in season — peaches, persimmon or in fall, a mixture of apples with cinnamon and nutmeg. He’s even made shrubs with the fruit of sumac shrubs.

Abel has established Ups and Downs Farm in 2010. He appropriated the farm name from his stepfather because he says you have to appreciate the downs in life because that’s what creates the ups. “You wouldn’t know what a nice day is like if you didn’t have to deal with a cold, snowy day. I think they’re both enjoyable and equally valuable.”

Prickly Pear Shrub

Making a shrub is an easy way to preserve fruits and vegetables. In this case, the bright purple color is as refreshing as the bright tart/sweet taste.

1 pound prickly pear fruits, peeled and roughly chopped (yields about 2 cups fruit)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup agave syrup

Using tongs to hold fruit, cut thin slice off top and bottom. Stand fruit on one cut end, and holding the top cut end, slice down the sides to remove peel. Roughly chop fruit and put in a heatproof glass container.

In another heatproof container, combine water, vinegar and agave syrup. Microwave 2 minutes. Carefully remove from microwave and pour over chopped fruit. Allow to steep at least 2 hours. May steep up to 1 day.

Drain fruit and vinegar mixture through a strainer into a glass jar. Press down on solids to extract all juice. Discard solids and refrigerate shrub up to 1 month. To use, mix shrub with water or club soda to taste. Makes: 1 3/4 cups

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 27 calories (percent of calories from fat, 5), trace protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium.

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