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VOL. 38 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 3, 2014

Trying something new can be prickly proposition

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Fall’s here y’all, and the soup’s on! I don’t know about you, but for me spring and summer slipped by way too quickly, and I’m rather bummed about it. I enjoy autumn; It’s the season after that I dread.

Since I cannot control the seasons, all I can do is kick back and enjoy the best of what they each have to offer. For fall, that is great, hearty soups, wonderful vegetables, pumpkins, beautiful leaves, football games, tailgate parties, Thanksgiving and so much more.

Today, I have a soup recipe for you. I’ve featured it before, and it is one of my very favorites. I hope that you have tried it. If not, now would be a good time.

The other day I was in the grocery with one of my sons, and he picked up this funny-looking thing fruit and proceeded to tell me how to eat it. Although I had never seen one before, he said that he and his Army buddies have eaten them a lot. (Not so surprising – they eat scorpions, too). They are Prickly Cactus Pears, and you can take the name seriously. They are prickly.

I had to get a few and try them. I even had my mom and sister try them, which didn’t go so well. They both rather sneered them off, as ‘they’re OK’. No, “Great guns, these are good” response.

Nevertheless, that didn’t end my experimenting with them. I checked them out on the Internet, and this is what I learned.

Prickly pear cactuses are a staple food of Native Americans. The large, colorful blossoms appear in yellow, pink, red or purple and grow from the tip of cactus nodules, which later ripen into red fruit. Many varieties of prickly pear cactus grow wild throughout the deserts of the Southwest, however some are not native. Some species of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia megacantha) were introduced into North America from tropical South America.

The colorful fruit of prickly pear cactuses is a common delicacy in Mexico and is called “tuna.” While all prickly pear cacti are of the genus Opuntia, the non-native is one of the tastiest and most popular. Some of the native species, especially those with dark purple fruit, are not as flavorful.

The flat-jointed paddles of the prickly pear are not leaves, but rather stems from which the fruit grows. The cactus paddles, or “Nopales,” are also common ingredients in Mexican recipes, including salads and scrambled eggs.

Lasagna Soup

2-3 roasted Sweet Italian Peppers, chopped (optional)
1 pound Italian Sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, sliced into 1” chunks
2 cups sliced mushrooms
3 fat cloves garlic, minced
4-5 cups chicken broth
1 large can stewed Italian Tomatoes, chopped
1 small can tomato sauce
1 cup curly pasta (I used Campenelle)
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
1 cup provolone or mozzarella cheese, diced
Parmesan Cheese, shredded
Fresh basil, sliced thin

Roast peppers by placing them on an oiled cookie sheet, under the oven broiler for about 5 minutes, or until skin is black. Remove and cool. Peel skin off peppers, and chop.

Brown sausage, add carrots and onions; sauté 3 minutes.  Add mushrooms and garlic, sauté 4-5 minutes longer. Add roasted peppers, broth, tomatoes, and tomato sauce; bring to a boil. Add pasta. Simmer until cooked; stir in spinach. Place some of the cubed cheese on bottom of each bowl. Pour in soup. Garnish with Parmesan and basil.

The prickly pear normally ripens and is ready for harvest during the late summer and early fall. I watched a You Tube video on harvesting the pear, and the worker wore gloves and used a small blowtorch to burn off the small, almost invisible needles while using tongs to hold and pick it. Now I’m sure the Indians don’t carry blowtorches with them out in the desert, so there is probably another way to do it.

Once the fruit is removed from the cactus, it quickly loses nutritional value and can ferment, so try to eat or process soon after harvesting.

After removing the needles (or glochids), you can eat the fruit fresh or prepare it in several ways. Prickly pear juice can be used to make jelly, conserve, marmalade or salad dressing. It can also be mixed with other juices to make smoothies, shakes and several other refreshing beverages.

WebMD states: “Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, hangovers, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections.”

So here’s my humble opinion. It was OK. I didn’t think it had much of a taste, and I can’t think of anything it is similar to because it was just plain sweet and juicy – super juicy.

The juice stains (it’s as red as a pomegranate) so be careful and use a cutting board. It is a pretty fruit and looks good in a fruit salad. Jelly would probably be pretty, but unless you harvest them yourself, the cost involved in enough to make jelly would be outrageous; they are expensive little things.

Anyway, if you see one in the market, be adventurous and try one, you have nothing to lose. In the meantime, try this delicious soup for dinner. It’s not so ho-hum.

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