Sunday 22 January 2012

Salad of Prickly Pears, Feta and Watercress

The sweetly perfumed flesh of a chilled prickly pear is something I really look forward in midsummer, and I buy them whenever I see them to use in fruit salads. They are not everyone's cup of tea because they're crammed with nubbly, crunchy seeds, but I can't resist them because they remind me of my childhood. I was interested to see, when I tweeted the picture below earlier today, that other people of a Certain Age also fondly remembered eating cold prickly pears as children.  Food and wine pundit Michael Olivier, who grew up on a farm near Cape Town, recalled how his family's housekeeper picked the pears using an empty Lucky Star pilchard tin, and then swept them across the lawn to remove the prickles. Another of my friends, Cape Town writer Penny Haw, tweeted: 'You gave me a happy reminder of my dear Dad, who'd risk all manner of perforation to get his paws on prickly pears.'

Bowl by David Walters. See my note about the damask napkin at end of this page.
I thought I'd try prickly pears in a salad, for a change, and I hope you'll enjoy this unusual combination of green prickly pears, creamy feta and watercress, sparked with a little dried chilli.  The first time I made this, I whisked up a fairly complex vinaigrette flavoured with mint, ginger and garlic, but it stomped rudely all over the simple, clean tastes of the key ingredients. On my second try, I sprinkled the salad with just a little olive oil and lemon juice, and a pinch of salt, and this more restrained dressing brought all the flavours together nicely.

This recipe is partly inspired by Nigella Lawson's Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad, an intriguing combination of salty and sweet (with a punch of red onion and mint) that has spread like a rash across the Internet and, in the process, become a bit of a cliché. I don't know for sure that Nigella was the first to write this recipe down, but if she was, she deserves all credit for it. (And I think a few crescents of very finely sliced red onion would add some real zip to my recipe.) 

Please don't be put off by the idea of peeling prickly pears. The skin comes away very easily and neatly, and you won't be pricked if you use a fork and a very sharp paring knife. I've used green-fleshed prickly pears here, but this is just as good with pink ones. 

If this recipe convinces you that prickly pears are worth buying, try my Prickly Pear Granita, or my Prickly Pear and Grape Salad with Frozen Rosemary Sugar.

Salad of Prickly Pears, Feta and Watercress

6 large, ripe prickly pears, chilled overnight
2 'wheels' (about 140 g) creamy feta cheese, cubed
a small bunch of fresh watercress, leaves picked
1 tsp (5 ml) dried red chilli flakes, or more, to taste
salt and milled black pepper
a little extra-virgin olive oil
fresh lemon juice

First peel the cold pears. Cut about 5 mm off the top and bottom of each pear, using a kitchen cloth or a rubber glove to grasp the pear while you do so. Place a pear, upright, on a chopping board. Push the tines of a fork into the top of the pear to hold it fast. Now, using the tip of a sharp paring knife, make four vertical cuts, about 3mm deep, into the skin of the pear, scoring from top to bottom. Use the fork to peel away the skin in sections; it will come away easily if the pears are ripe. Cut the pear in half vertically and slice into thick half-moons. Repeat with the remaining pears.  

Put the pears in a bowl and add the feta, watercress and chilli flakes. Season with salt and pepper (but go easy on the salt, as the feta is already quite salty). Toss all the ingredients gently together. Pile the mixture onto a platter (or onto individual plates) and drizzle with a little olive oil and a generous spritz of lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 as a starter. 

Note about the damask napkin in the picture:  I'm a sucker for heavy damask napkins, and treasure the old ones I have, but they're looking more pink than white these days (having done heavy duty mopping up red wine puddles over the years).  I was very pleased to find a bolt of prettily patterned damask at Fabric World in Main Road, Wynberg, and astonished when they charged me - last year's price, so don't quote me - only R13 per napkin to stitch the edges, which was very neatly done. I spent about R330 for 12 napkins, and I think they're worth every cent.  
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Nina Timm said...

Love the simplicity of your work Jane and yet there is such an element of sophistication, ever so fanchy smanchy!!! Your sandwich press inspired my post for today!!

Anonymous said...

Oooooooooh prickly pears....I close my eyes and I can hear the old woman with a bucket full of them on head calling from the front gate. My mom would go out and barter a price then transfer the prickly green treasures into an enamel basin and bring them inside for us to devour. My very favourite way, icy cold from the fridge with a thick slice of fresh bread and farm butter...thank you for the wonderful reminder. My mom and grandmother used to make the most wonderful prickly pear syrup and that too was a meal fit for a king poured over thickly buttered bread. I used to cut it up into tiny blocks and eat it with a fork...YUMYUM!!! Many is the time I had to have prickles removed with tweezers!

Jane-Anne said...

Thanks Nina. How kind of you.

Colly, I would give my eye teeth to get my hands on a recipe for prickly-pear syrup. Any chance?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I don't have going to try and ask my siblings. My brother was here from the Free State last week and we were reminiscing about that syrup, the best we've ever I know he doesn't have it either. I can see the huge muslin bag hanging from a hook in the roof dripping into a huge basin on the floor below it...and us kids were instructed to give the bag a squeeze or two each time we walked past it :) Oh so much nostalgic joy I am having...this is going back 50 years or so...

Kit said...

I have to admit to avoiding them due to too many irritating prickles lodged in fingers when I was working in Italy. Must be less fainthearted in future and discover their attraction!

Live to Eat said...

I have such happy memories of these. They grow like wildfire in the Karoo and summers meant buckets of prickly pears. My best is icy cold, straight out of the fridge.PS There's a recipe for Prickly Pear syrup in my Prickly Pears & Pomegranates, page 57.

Jane-Anne said...

Thanks Bern! I'm definitely going to give the syrup recipe a try. Can't wait.