We always await each summer for prickly pears to come into season, so ripe, juicy and colorful. The cactus features against the rubble walls in most photos that identify Maltese countryside.
The health benefits of prickly pears are endless and very much sought after all around the world and classed nearly as a superfood. My favurite way of using it this summer was to pick fruits of the same colur and liquidize them, pass them through a sieve and you end up with a vibrantly colured thick juice which you can water down and drink as it is or add to fruit teas and refrigerate. I love red prickly pear juice with rooibos tea, chilled and served over ice with a slice of lime.
The concentrated juice is so attractive when poured over plain yoghurt andserved in individual glasses.
On the island we have a few different varieties and I loved the miniature variety which are rather unusual and produce bite size fruits.
I cooked the paddles this summer to make different dishes but the most versatile one is the saute and you can serve it like you would a vegetable as a side dish. It is a common ingredient in Mexico (Nopales) and I will start to use it more often as I liked the results. I was not keen on the taste of raw pads used as an addition to salads.
For the Saute of Prickly Pear Paddles you will need:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large prickly pear paddle, freshly cut
1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 giant cloves garlic or 4 small ones
1/4 teaspoon oregano
Sea Salt and freshly ground pepper to season
Rinse the paddle under some running water. It is best to wear gloves. Soak the paddle in a large container of cold water for at least an hour. Remove and use tweezers to remove the thorns. Use a sharp knife to remove the bumps, tough bits and uneven surfaces as well as to completely cut around the areas where the thorns were. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the dark green skin. Peel it as you would a carrot, no need to remove all the dark green surface and it gives a good flavor if there are still traces of it.
Place the paddle on a chopping board and cut around 2 cm of all the edges and about 4 cm from the thick base.
Once it is cleaned out you will need to dice it into small pieces. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan on moderate heat and add the onion and garlic finely chopped. Cook until the onion is translucent but do not let it crisp. Add the diced prickly pear paddle and stir. Lower the heat and cook for around 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes. It will ooze a liquid that is slightly gelatinous.
Keep cooking until this starts to reduce. This is a similar process to cooking mushrooms. Remove from the heat and serve. I believe it is an ideal accompaniment to fresh fish.
Photography: With thanks to Ian Noel Pace and Gino Galea