Thursday, October 3, 2013

What to do with Prickly Pears

My parents have a gigantic prickly pear cactus (aka paddle cactus, where nopales come from) growing in/on their "compost pile."

Seriously, it's huge.

This year, it's also covered in prickly pears... and my mom doesn't want to deal with them this time around.

Lucky me!

So I grabbed me some. Well, as many as I could before the skies opened up and poured down rain, halting my foragers' harvest.

I got enough for a little something, though, and if you have access to these "desert pears," too, you might be wondering just what to do with 'em. Here's what I'd do:

First, I'd harvest the fruit with as little contact between me and the pears as possible.
Seriously, these little buggers may not look spiny, but they have clusters of super-fine,
flesh-colored hairs that are nightmarish. Use tongs. Use heavy-duty gloves. Use caution.

The next step is getting rid of the hairy prickles. I've heard of people burning them off, scraping
them off with the back of a knife, scrubbing them off with a bottle brush or brillo pad, and worse.
The best way I've found is to just rub them off with a firm, rubber-glove protected grip under
running water.

Now that they've been de-prickled, what to do with them? You should know what parts you actually want first. Don't
be tempted to pop a whole one in your mouth, or bite in to one to taste it. The skin is like papery leather, the seeds
are inedibly rock hard, and the edible flesh is both spongy and slimy at the same time... so ya know. They have a green,
grassy quality with berry notes and a bright tartness. If you do want to eat them fresh, I would suggest dressing them
with some kind of sweetness (like a sprinkling of sugar, a drizzle of honey, and maybe a squeeze of lime juice), but you
have to peel them and scoop out the seeds first, and that's a lot of trouble, my friends.

What I now do when I have a cleaned batch of these pears is cut them in half, toss them in a pot with about 1/2 cup
of water, cover them, and cook them over medium-low heat until they're mushy and have given up their juices.
Juice is the ticket, in my opinion. The most yield for the least amount of effort.

Once your prickly pears have lost most of their bright color and are very mushy, dump
the entire contents of the pot into a colander or fine mesh sieve lined with at least 2 layers
of cheese cloth, placed over a bowl of some kind to catch all their juice.

Allow the pears to drain for 5-8 hours or over night with a weight of some kind placed
over the top (I put a dessert plate on top of the cheese cloth-wrapped pears and then
placed a large jar of lentils on top), or you can squeeze and twist the cheese cloth
until you get every last drop of juice out of them... but beware: this juice stains. It stains
clothes, it stains fingernails, it stains kitchen towels and washcloths. You have been warned.

Once you have yourself a few cups of prickly pear juice, the possibilities are nearly endless! You can make jelly (though I've had particular difficulty getting prickly pear jelly to gel... though I've used a failed jelly as a sorbet in my ice cream maker and it was amazing, once I got over how much sugar was in it). You can make prickly pear lemonade or prickly pear mimosas. How about a prickly pear granita? I was only able to collect about 2 cups of juice from the pears I brought home this time around, but it'll make for a fun cocktail hour this weekend.

In the past, I have found success making prickly pear marmalade, as the pectin in oranges helps set the prickly pear part of the concoction. I would have loved it if I'd cut the oranges thin enough (think paper thin!). I've also tossed raw prickly pears (peeled, seeded) into salads along with other things for their tartness, and it wasn't bad, but it's true about the texture- spongy and slimy. However, prickly pears and strawberries go brilliantly together, and if you mix them 50/50 with strawberries, you can make an amazing crumble or pie, but again it's labor intensive as you have to peel and seed each one.

SO for me juice it is, and juice it will probably be in the foreseeable future if I go back for round two with my parents' plant, that is if the weather holds.

Does anyone know if prickly pear juice pairs well with tequila...?

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