Until recently, all I knew about prickly pears was that they are the fruit of a cactus, the Sicilians eat them, and that according to Baloo, they are a bear necessity.
I’d filed them in the back of my mind to the “someday I’ll get to it” list, along with perfecting bechamel and giving a crap about edible foams. But then, about a month ago, while Holly and I were hunting deer at our friends John and Peg’s place outside Lincoln, I saw a huge patch of various species of opuntia. I asked Peg what she did with her prickly pear fruit. She gave a little pout and mumbled, “Nutin’.”
“Nutin?” I was surprised. After all Peg’s a serious food maven in the Sacramento scene: Used to run a restaurant, catering, the whole nine. I figured she’d planted them for some food reason. ”Can I use some?” Sher, Peg said, and off I went with a big garden glove and a paper bag.
I must have gathered 4-5 dozen of these little nasties, pretty but covered in vicious thorns. I smashed one to see what the inside looked like. It was a lurid, doesn’t-occur-in-nature magenta. Wow, I thought. Trippy.
I brought them home, but other things intervened and they sat in my fridge in that paper bag for nearly a month. First lesson learned: Prickly pears store really well in the fridge.
I brought them out because I wanted to reduce them to a syrup and then use that syrup for a variety of things. But first I needed to get these little flavor grenades out of their spiky skins. Second lesson learned: It’s not the big, seemingly vicious spines you need to worry about. It’s the hairlike “glochids,” which cover the fruit, that you need to worry about. Hated, evil glochids. Even the name sounds like some monster in a George Romero film.
With much cursing, I sliced off the skins and dropped the magenta centers into a bowl. I later learned that I was supposed to torch the pears briefly, which burns off the glochids. My friends Elise and Garrett have a method for skinning prickly pears that works well, too.
Once skinned, you now need to separate the seeds from the pulp. Garrett and several others say the seeds are edible, but they are either high or have far stronger teeth than I do; it’s like eating a wood chip. Now I’ve dealt with removing seeds for a syrup before, no time worse than with the fig syrup. Fortunately prickly pear seeds are about 100 times larger than fig seeds, so this step was no biggie.
I buzzed them in a blender, then through a food mill with the coarse die — just large enough to block the seeds. You could stop here, but I am something of a fanatic when it comes to clarity; I developed this particular neurosis from making wine. So I passed the pulpy juice through a fine-meshed sieve and then through cheesecloth.
After that, I added an equal volume of sugar and brought it to a simmer to thicken a little. Prickly pears are loaded with vitamin C, and this is a vitamin that’s destroyed by heat, so I wanted to limit the heat as much as possible. Once the sugar was good and dissolved, I turned off the heat and added some citric acid.
Why? Third lesson learned: Prickly pears, which taste like a combination of bubble gum, watermelon and strawberries, are totally lacking in tartness. Without acid, they are not very tasty. Why citric acid? I wanted a neutral acid, not lemon juice. They’re close, but not the same. Lemons bring other flavors to the party, and I wanted this to be prickly pear’s show.
The result? Pure magenta power.
This stuff rocks. The citric acid gives it just the right tang, and it brings out the watermelon-bubblegum elements and holds the color; it’s also a good preservative so I will be able to play with this stuff for a while.
My initial thoughts? Mixed with tequila, of course. Cactus and Cactus. Duh!
I also drizzled a little on a plate with a slice from a torchon of foie gras Chef Michael Tuohy gave me as a parting gift after last week’s Duck Off. The combination of foie and prickly pear syrup is divine.
After those two experiments, I figured I may make a sorbet, a vinaigrette for a salad, a souffle, or a glaze for a game bird. Oh wait, I did that.
Allow me to present to you one of the best pheasants I’ve ever cooked.
OK, I need to tell you that the reason was only partly because of the prickly pear glaze. The real reason was that I had hung the bird for nearly four days before I froze it, then brined it for 12 hours. Oh yeah, and it was a pen-raised bird, so it had a lot of fat. And I got lucky and cooked it perfectly. The glaze was literally the icing on the cake. Or the pheasant, in this case.
Here is the full glazed pheasant recipe, and keep in mind it works just fine with a regular chicken, and with other glazes such as maple syrup, honey or another fruit syrup.
Getting the glaze to actually caramelize was the trick. I needed to roast the bird an extra 30 minutes to do it, something that might be tricky with a real wild pheasant. I’ll need to play with this a bit.
What’s the takeaway? Stretch a bit. I’d ignored prickly pears as outside my area of interest; they were Mexican, a cuisine I leave to Holly. They are something Bobby Flay might use in one of his hallucinogenic plating designs. They were hard to find.
This last bit was the must amusing self-delusion. Once I realized this was good food — and I have not even ventured into nopales, which is the actual cactus pad itself — I began seeing prickly pear cacti everywhere. I see one on the side of Highway 50 on my way to work every day. I even hear they live in decidedly non-cacti friendly areas like Montana.
I know I will keep using prickly pears, if only as a glaze for game birds or a mixer for tequila on a hot day. I also know many of you have far more experience with this ingredient. What do you use it for?
PRICKLY PEAR SYRUP
This is a pretty standard syrup recipe, but using the brilliant magenta fruits of the prickly pear cactus as the fruit. Commercial versions of this syrup are used for fancy margaritas or are poured over pancakes; two excellent ideas.
I strongly advise you to buy citric acid for this recipe. You can often find it in the canning aisle of the supermarket under names like “Fruit Fresh” and the like. You can also buy it at homebrew supply stores. Prickly pears lack any sort of acid tang and need something to keep them from being insipid. Lemons work fine, but add another flavor to the party. I want base ingredients like a syrup to be pure in flavor.
This recipe is a guide: Prickly pears come in all sizes and sweetness levels, so use your taste buds and common sense. My pears were small, mostly about the size of limes. And they were sweet, but not overly so.
Makes 1 quart of syrup.
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
- 5 pounds prickly pears
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon citric acid or the juice of 2 lemons
- After the pears have been peeled, puree them in a food processor. There will be lots of seeds that you’ll need to filter out.
- For a real clear syrup, push everything through a coarse food mill grate or colander — something just large enough to catch the seeds. Take your time and get all the pulp you can.
- Now run the pulp and juice through a fine mesh sieve. If you really want to get fancy, run the sieved juice through cheesecloth. This is what I did.
- You should have about 3 cups of juice. Pour this in a heavy pot and add the sugar — whatever your juice volume is, add that much sugar.
- Bring it to a simmer slowly over medium heat. Let it simmer for 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it cool for 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or citric acid. Add a little at a time and taste it. Stop adding when it is tart enough for you.
- Pour while still hot into clean Mason jars and seal. This should keep for months in the fridge, or you could probably process it in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes and keep it in the pantry; the citric acid helps preserve the syrup.