Or at least, nothing says autumn in the desert like cactus fruits, otherwise known as prickly pears, or in Mexico, "tunas."
It's really strange to think that something this juicy and sweet is all over the place out here.
You should note however, that picking these fruits off of state, county, or city land without a "removal of natural resources" permit is against the law, so you either have to get a permit through your state (which is expensive...btw), or you can harvest them from your property, or someone else's private property (with the land owner's permission, of course.) Or... if you live in a really exciting place, you may have a farmer's market where these are sold.
Harvesting laws aside, these fruits are a rare gem in the desert. They tend to be slightly sweet, very juicy, and have a real sour kick. Not like a lemon, but more like a tart kiwi, with some cherry, and berry flavors. They can be used for all sorts of goodies. I made a classic prickly pear jelly, a tuna infused tequila, and some prickly pear syrup for drinks. You can even eat the tunas straight up, but watch out, since they're full of seeds, and remind me of chewing on tasty gravel.
Preparing them is a somewhat laborious process, but doesn't have to be tricky or hard. You just have to take your time. Of course, since they're cacti, they have pokey thorns of death. And even worse than the large obvious stickers, the tunas have very tiny barbed spines called "glochids." These are the things that usually stick in you and give you a pain in the ass when you rub into a cactus. Although they're on the tunas, if you follow a few steps you can avoid getting poked by them, in your finger, throat or otherwise.
Harvesting requires some "ingredients" if you can call them that...
Bring with you:
a pair of leather gloves
long metal chef's tongs
a cardboard box or bucket you don't mind throwing away afterward
Dress in jean pants, and a long sleeve shirt in case you brush against any cacti.
Search for the bright colored tunas atop the prickly cacti. The ripe ones will be dark reddish-purple, uniform in color, and some what plump. It's easiest to remove them by grasping them with the tongs and twisting the tunas off. If you just pull them, they'll usually tear and leave some of the fruit left on the cactus. Once you twist them off, if you look into the tear wound, the flesh inside will be brightly colored and juicy. Some of the fruits may even gush magenta colored liquid down the cacti pads when you pull them off.
These are my tunas in a box. My box made a double batch of jelly, 750 ml of tuna tequila, and about 2 cups of prickly pear syrup.
Once you have obtained the fruits, now you have to prepare them for whatever.
This mostly involves washing any tasty nature bits off, as well as, scrubbing out some of the glochids.
For this part you'll need:
Lab gloves (vinyl, latex, nitrile, whatever)
Dish Brush that you don't mind throwing away afterwards
Pairing Knife (if you're planning on skinning them. we'll get to that later)
Put your gloves on!!! I learned this the hard way. If you don't, you'll end up with glochids in your fingers.
Start by stabbing a tuna and running it under cold water. I found it easiest to stab the top dried-out looking part. Use the dish brush to scrub off bird poop, and insect leavings, and also in the process start removing the glochids in your scrubbing. If you look closely in the sink, you'll see them going down the drain. They look like little hairs.
This is the part where you skin them. For making my tequila, I skinned mine. I wanted the tequila to get the best contact with the juicy flesh, since I wouldn't be squashing them like in the jelly/syrup recipe. If you're not going to do the skinning step, you just half the washed tunas and place them in a giant stock pot. We'll get to the jelly recipe and steps later.
Still holding the tuna with the fork, place it on the sheet pan like shown. It's important to use a sheet pan! If you use your wood, or plastic cutting board, you'll ruin it. It will become full of glochids and you'll have to throw it way. Metal washes off nicely. Hooray for hard materials!
Use your pairing knife to cut the skins off the tunas. This is just like skinning an apple, or grapefruit. Don't worry about getting really close to the top where the fork is. We're going to cut the top off anyways. When you're done rotating and skinning, you should have a little flower looking shape at the bottom. Hold the skin down, and pull the fruit up and off.
Now maneuver the fork so you're stabbing in horizontally, and chop the top off.
Halve the fruit, marvel at the obnoxious pink/red/purple/magenta color, and then chuck into a jar.
that's it!! (for preparing at least...)
Now you get to make stuff.
I'll start with my tequila infusion. I used two quart jars for 750 mL of tequila.
1 750 mL of blanco tequila
2 Quart Mason jars
your prepped tunas
Half the tequila between the two jars, and then fill with prepped tunas. Let sit for a week or so, and give a good shake once a day to the jars! it's that easy!
When the time is up, begin by coarse filtering the slop. This step will remove all the fruit and seeds. I used an unlined colander and filtered into a big bowl. I also pressed on the solids to extract as much juice as I could. Then fine filter the bowl of liquid. This step is for removing any extra glochids in the solution. I used a fine meshed sieve, lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Let the solution filter, ring out the cheese cloth if you're anal about getting all that tequila back and then place back in your bottle!! TADA!!
You can use this to make prickly pear margaritas. Although, I noticed that the prickly pears already added quite a sour kick, so you may be able to cut back on the lime juice, and possibly add a little more triple sec, or even some orange juice to cut the tang down.
Now... on to the jelly and syrup!
These recipes didn't need skinned tunas, so they were a bit easier.
For either recipe you'll need to first cook down the tunas to make "juice."
This is easy. Just dump the halved and washed tunas in a stock pot, add enough water to just come to the edge of the tunas, and then simmer. While the tunas are simmering, use a potato masher to mash the tunas and extract more juice. Cook 'em up for a while, and then strain the liquid just like in the tequila recipe.
Once you have strained, glochid free juice, you're ready for jelly/syrup!
I started by reserving 2 cups of juice for the syrup. Everything else went into the jelly.
2.5 cups of juice (or however much juice you have, and the rest is made up with water)
1.75 oz powdered pectin (1 package)
3 Tbsp lemon
3.5 cups sugar
begin by heating the juice in a pot. When boiling, add the pectin, and continually stir for a good 10 minutes. Skim the foamy stuff off the top for a clear jelly. Add the lemon juice, and then gradually whisk in the sugar until it's all dissolved. Ladle the hot jelly into jelly jars (i used 8 oz masons), and then follow the typical canning procedure of capping, submerging, boiling, and cooling the jelly. It should set up nicely, and you'll have the most obnoxious colored jelly to give to all your friends.
The syrup, is just a simple syrup, with 2 Cups juice, and one cup of white sugar. Boil to dissolve, and cook to allow some of the sucrose to break down, preventing it from crystallizing when it cools. Bottle it up and use it for things!!
I found a delicious drink was:
1 shot Gin
8-10 oz ginger ale
some of that syrup...
shake, mix, rattle, roll, drink, spill... what have you. oh yeah, it's more pink that you even know what to do