An empty can of corn and old shower curtain rod may seem like junk to you but is a lifesaver when you are trying to pick prickly pears (Opuntia) True to its name, they are covered with tiny, hair like prickles (glochids) which shoot out when you try to pick them, embedding in your skin and nearly impossible to remove. Before computers, televisions and overprotective parents existed every kid in Israel knew how to make this nifty gadget, which is simply a long stick with an empty can on one end to harvest prickly pears without touching them. When summer has been dragging on for long enough, and school is about to begin prickly pears are in season, turning from green, yellow and finally orange, a welcome splash of color in the fading landscape.
A few days ago, my son, upon seeing the gorgeous fruit couldn’t help but pick one with his bare hands while Evelyne (my favorite Tunisian neighbor) kept telling him he was not going about it correctly. She was right of course and I ended up removing spikes from the roof of his mouth. I promised my son we would return, but this time properly armed. As I have never gone prickly pearing in my childhood in upstate New York, I had to rely on my husband’s knowledge on all things prickly.
As my sons soon found out,
“Picking prickly pears is exactly like fishing!” I would say even better because there is no gutting and filleting involved.
Prickly pears are indigenous to Mexico and were introduced to the Mediterranean by the Spaniards in the fifteen hundreds. They grew well in the similar hot dry climate and quickly spread to North Africa, the Middle East and finally to Australia where they multiplied so prolifically that they needed to be eradicated by strange and aggressive measures. These were tough invasive plants, growing well where other plants barely survived, finding their home in abandoned fields and rocky dry soil.
The sweet fruits of the prickly pear, known as sabras in Hebrew, can be eaten straight off the cactus, but they are often chilled, like watermelons making a refreshing treat in the heat of summer. A sabra is also the term used for a Jew who was born and raised in Israel, one who is outwardly tough but concealing a softer side within. To the Arabs this plant represents their endurance and resilience in face of hardship and more importantly it came to symbolize their abandoned villages, where prickly pears soon grew in the vacant streets and gardens. There are all together too many deserted villages throughout the Middle East and North Africa benefiting only the ubiquitous prickly pear. In Israel this cacti is squeezed dry of metaphors but there are other interesting uses for them.
Besides the sweet juicy fruit, prickly pear oil is extracted from its seeds and its pads (the leaf like part of the plant) can be used as cattle feed and even as a basis for prickly pear paint if you happen to be a diehard fan of this plant. Prickly pears are also the host plant for tiny scale insects which are used to make a brilliant red dye called cochineal. This dye was used intensively in the food and textile industry before chemical colorants became available. There is a renewed interest in cochineal as a natural pigment in food to avoid the problems associated with commercial dyes such as food intolerance, allergies and cancer.
On the same day we went on our prickly pear expedition we visited the monastery of the Sisters of Bethlehem at Bet Gemal located on the first Christian settlement in Israel. The nuns at the monastery support themselves by producing and selling jams, honey, olive oil and wine as well as creating beautiful and intricately designed ceramics for kitchen and decorative use (I asked permission to photograph the ceramic store).
Summertime Prickly Pear Pie
This is a summer pie with the sweet scent of almonds, honey and prickly pears. This recipe is based on the classic French fruit tart.
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup ground almonds
100 grams cold butter, cut up
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
1-2 tablespoons ice water
4 large egg yolks
10 grams cornstarch
10 grams flour
50 grams sugar
400 ml milk
1/2 vanilla bean or teaspoon vanilla essence
2 tablespoons rosata (almond drink) or a teaspoon almond extract
4-5 prickly pears, peeled and cut into slices
Honey, warmed so that it is liquid (I used honey from Bet Gemal)
22 cm pie pan
When making pastry dough, everything must stay very cold. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, add the flour, sugar and butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg and pulse until mixed, add 1-2 tablespoons of ice water and pulse until the dough comes together. It is possible to dump crumbly dough on a clean surface and bring the dough together by hand to avoid adding too much water. This can make the dough chewy. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Let the dough rest for 1/2-1 hour in the refrigerator. Roll out the dough and line pie pan. The dough might break while handling but it is possible to patch holes with spare pieces of dough. Using a fork, poke holes in the bottom of the pie crust. Cover the pie crust with parchment paper and add beans or other weight to keep the pie from rising in the middle. Put the pie in the oven and bake for 15 minutes with the parchment paper, then remove paper and beans and bake for another 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Cool.
In a small saucepan add the milk and split vanilla bean and cook until it is just about to boil. Combine flour, cornflour and sugar. Add the egg yolks to the flour mixture and mix using a wire whisk until a smooth paste is formed. Slowly add the milk to the flour/egg mixture and whisk continuously so the eggs do not curdle. Return to saucepan. Heat the crème, on low while mixing continuously to avoid forming lumps. Continue to mix until the crème is thick. Add the rosata or almond extract and mix well. Transfer to bowl and cover with plastic wrap so a film does not form on the surface. Cool.
Spread the crème patierre evenly across the pie crust. Decorate the top with prickly pear and brush the top of each prickly pear with a bit of honey. I also made a prickly pear syrup which I also used, but didn’t think that added a lot more flavor. Serve immediately with prickly pear margarita.